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The Brain Under the Influence of Power

How power can "deform" the brain.

Power is an important social lens through which we interact with others and society. The powerful have more influence on others and greater access to valuable resources, such as food, education, jobs, and potential mates. The powerless have less access to these resources and are often dependent on the powerful. Ordinary people can get intoxicated by power or powerful roles. Just temporarily wearing a power-symbolizing uniform can re-code brain processes to create a new mindset.

An infamous 1971 Stanford University experiment showed the extent of behavior changes when in uniform (1). Philip Zimbardo and colleagues built a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department. Each participant was randomly assigned to play a "guard" or "prisoner." Guards dressed like guards and were given whistles, whereas prisoners dressed like prisoners with identification numbers stamped on their smocks. The initial plan was to observe students for two weeks, but the study had to terminate in six days. The guards became aggressive, insulting, and humiliating, whereas the prisoners became passive, helpless, and emotionally disturbed.

A more recent (and ethical) iteration of Zimbardo’s experiment was conducted at McMaster University in 2017. Canadian university students wore either a police uniform or mechanics overalls and performed a task while encountering distractors during the main task (2). Examples of distractors were pictures of people wearing clothing associated with low socioeconomic status (hoodie) or wearing clothing associated with high socioeconomic status (suit). The researchers wanted to explore the link between wearing a power symbolizing uniform and the extent to which high or low SES distractors shift the participant’s attention away from the main task.

In other words, the slower the reaction time during the task, the more distracting and salient the picture (low or high SES). The participants were biased toward low socioeconomic distractors only when they were wearing police-style uniforms. The results are reminiscent of police profiling, in which low-status groups are more salient to and capturing of police officers’ attention (2).

The brains of powerful individuals react differently to social cues in ways that resemble psychopaths or patients with frontal brain damage. Psychopaths and some patients with brain damage lack empathy and the ability to take others' perspectives. Research has shown that power can deform the brain to act in the same ways. For example, people with high status have been shown to be less accurate in judging the emotions of people with low status.

In a clever paradigm, researchers explored the relationship between empathy-related brain areas and power status. They compared the extent of mirroring (indirectly related to processes underlying empathy) in people who were primed with high or low power scenarios using transcranial magnetic stimulation TMS (3). Priming was done by having participants at baseline write an essay on a specific incident in which they had more power over another person or write an essay in which someone had power over them. Then, participants in both groups (high and low power) watched videos of another person’s actions.

Our human brains have mirror neural networks, meaning that similar brain areas are activated when observing the actions of others. If you have ever experienced secondhand driving, you get the point! For example, if you are a piano player, and you observe another person playing the piano, the motor areas in your brain light up too!

Astonishingly, this “mirroring” vanishes in people under the influence of power. Just priming the participant with power (writing about an incident in which you had power) decreased the mirroring of others’ actions. This creates an asymmetry in relationships between the powerful and powerless. In other words, the powerless are more attentive to the uniqueness of the powerful, and the powerful perceive the powerless in accordance with general stereotypes (read "Racism and the Brain"). Some researchers called this the default effect of power resulting in “reduced interpersonal sensitivity” (3, p. 759). A myriad of research has shown that powerful people are more likely to rely on stereotypes (4).

Adam Galinsky and colleagues showed that powerful people also tend to anchor the world on their perspective. They primed participants with high or low power (similar to the priming explained in the previous paragraph), then asked them to write the letter “E” on their foreheads. The participants can write it in the direction they would read it, but is reversed to others (self-oriented), or in the direction others would read it, but reversed to themselves (other-oriented). Power was associated with writing a self-oriented E, which was reversed to observers.

Power schemas, as described above, may not extend to collectivist societies. In fact, in collectivist societies, power that is disruptive to societal harmony would be rejected. The brain under the influence of power in individualistic societies seems to de-individuate the powerless and allow the powerful to practice full individuation. Successful leaders in such societies succeed not because they are powerful, but because they understand the importance of acknowledging the uniqueness of every person blind to their power status. New leaders should be trained on how to disambiguate power from true leadership.


(1) Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97.

(2) Civile, C & Obhi, S.S. (2017). Students Wearing Police Uniforms Exhibit Biased Attention toward Individuals Wearing Hoodies. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:62.

(3) Hogeveen, J., Inzlicht, M. & Obhi, S.S. (2014). Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others. Experimental Psychology: General, 43 (2), 755-762.

(4) Russell, A.M., & Fiske, S.T. (2010). Power and social perception. In A. Guinote & T.K. Vescio (Eds.). The social psychology of power (231-250). New York, NY: Guilford Press.