Powerful insights into how brain works


If you want to win – and survive winning – prime yourself with small victories along the way, keep the common good in mind and strike a pose, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL

PROF IAN ROBERTSON leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head and puts a leg straight out on the chair beside him. It’s a “power pose” where he visibly takes up more space, and just adopting it is likely to change his brain chemistry and induce feelings of reward.

“By doing this I will feel more confident and more in charge,” says Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin. He explains that assuming power or winning increases levels of the hormone testosterone in men and women. This in turn can boost a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain’s so-called “reward” pathways.

“Power and success work through the same circuit as sex and cocaine; it’s a basic, primitive reward system.”

I have to admit, even his faked power pose changes the dynamic across the desk in his office, and I feel more settled when he adopts a neutral sitting pose again.

Why are we talking poses, power and brain chemistry? Robertson is the author of a new book, The Winner Effect – How Power Affects Your Brain, where he dissects the psychology and neuroscience linked with winning, whether it’s building a business, lifting a trophy or even getting one up on a sibling.

In a previous book, Mind Sculpture, he looked at how experience shapes our brains, and analysing the effects of the pecking order was a natural progression.

“There has been an explosion of fantastic research in social science, and also – looking at biology and the behaviour of animals – it occurred to me that probably the most important shaper of our brains is other people,” he says. “And one of the main features of our relationships with other people is the competition we are in with some and the power relationships we have with others.”

So what makes a winner come out on top? While genetics and talent play a part in winning, Robertson is quick to point out that the children of highly successful parents can sometimes be hobbled by the notion that they will never live up to the standard that has been set, so there has to be more involved.

Our individual attitude to success and winning could play a powerful role, particularly whether we believe that we are born with a given amount of ability or that we can improve it through work and experience – those who believe the latter may be more motivated to work at a problem, he explains.

Another brain shaper is winning itself, and the “winner effect” of the book’s title describes how the best guarantee of future success is past success.

“Winning, particularly on home territory, re-engineers critical parts of the brain so you become hypersensitive to testosterone,” says Robertson. He points out that this can happen in humans but the evidence he cites is from lab experiments.

“Mice that fight at home against an artificially weakened opponent are more likely to win against a stronger opponent. That’s because the receptors in their brain for testosterone grow, so when they get testosterone the next time there will be a wider activation.”

Let’s say you’ve got the attitude, you’re chalking up the small victories and you have the lucky breaks that are so often a catalyst for success. What happens if you hit the big win?

“Some people can flourish if they are given power: they rise to the occasion and develop abilities,” says Robertson. He describes how success can act as an anti-depressant, improve abstract thinking and make a person more focused on goals.

However, success can bring negative effects too – it’s not too hard to think of people who have let power literally go to their heads.

Robertson argues that successful leaders have a healthy combination of so-called “P” power that is stoked by ego and “S” power that looks to the common good. “Women tend to have more S power, which is why we need more women in leadership positions,” he notes.

His book engagingly relates the nuances of why and how we win, and the pitfalls of getting juiced up on dopamine in extreme success and hungering for adulation and worship.

So what advice would he give to innovators who are looking to win in a competitive marketplace?

“Failure can be one of the greatest sources of learning,” he says, noting how the culture in the US tends to appreciate the experience of getting “scars on your back” rather than seeing failure as a taint.

“The other thing is to try and have intrinsic reward for what you are doing. Don’t try and be number one: try and be really good at what you do. If you constantly want to be beat other people, you will get dissatisfied as there will always be someone better than you.”

And for a quick fix you can even fake it: a quick power pose could be the brain changer that helps you on your way.

The Winner Effect – How Power Affects Your Brain by Prof Ian Robertson is published by Bloomsbury