How power transforms the presidential brain


OPINION:Power changes people. After four years in office, Obama is less empathetic. Romney lacks empathy even now

ON THIS day 50 years ago, civilisation’s bloody, radioactive end was narrowly averted because of the psychological makeup of two men – Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

On October 27th, 1962, an American U2 plane had been shot down over the Russian nuclear missile sites on Cuba, and the hawks surrounding the Kennedys, who included vice-president Lyndon B Johnson and most of his generals, were demanding that Jack Kennedy retaliate by bombing the sites.

Worse, a compromise proposition contained in a letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy offering to remove the missiles in return for promising not to invade Cuba had been superseded by a contradictory second letter arriving shortly after which made much tougher demands, including a public promise to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Jack and Bobby Kennedy were more or less on their own against the assembled advisers who wanted to take a step that would in all probability have escalated into nuclear holocaust and reduced Ireland to a blasted wasteland, given that the US nuclear submarine base on the Holy Loch near Glasgow on the river Clyde was one of Russia’s first ballistic missile targets.

Tough enough as it had been for the two brothers to hold their ground a day earlier, now with the U2 downed and Khrushchev making contradictory and unacceptable demands, their hold on a peaceful, diplomatic solution was slipping fast.

But Jack Kennedy responded with a stroke of brilliance. He simply ignored the second Khrushchev letter and replied to the first as if the second hadn’t been sent. He offered privately to remove the US missiles in Turkey – they were obsolete and useless anyway – in a few months, but without announcing it publicly.

Khrushchev’s agreement meant that we are all here today and the surviving children of Ireland are not scrabbling for potatoes in its poisoned soil.

How would Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have responded had they stood in Jack Kennedy’s shoes?

The president of the United States is still the most powerful person in the world and the survival of our way of life depends on the judgments he or she makes.

But power changes people.

Every Tuesday Barack Obama is given a set of CVs with photographs. From this list he personally authorises which of these individuals will be targeted that week by remote predator drones. The first strike he ordered happened three days after he took office and he was reportedly extremely upset when a number of children were killed inadvertently in this attack.

Three years later, at the 2012 Washington White House correspondents’ association dinner, the president continued his now famous series of light-hearted singing and jokey press outings with a warning to the Jonas Brothers band about his daughters: “Sasha and Malia are huge fans but, boys, don’t be getting any ideas. I have two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking?”

The tasteless joke about the predator drones – imagine the same joke being made about a Texas execution – was in line with the sort of decline in empathy that even small amounts of power can cause. This is not to say that Obama would have triggered nuclear war in the way many of Kennedy’s advisers would have – on the contrary, his handling of the Iranian nuclear crisis has been deft, moderate and effective, if the current Iranian economic meltdown is a measure of that.

Nor do I think that Mitt Romney, like Obama a patently intelligent man, would necessarily lack judgment in such a situation. But what does worry me about Romney is the degree to which he seems to lack empathy even before the immense power of presidential office takes its hold, if he wins, on his brain.

During the third presidential debate, Romney said words to the effect that “America doesn’t tell other countries what to do – it spreads freedom”. The obvious nonsense of that remark could be ignored as electioneering were it not for the strong impression that he actually believed it. On foreign policy, there was a striking ego- centricity in his perspective, highlighted when he castigated Obama for his “apologising tour” of the world after he took office.

Egocentricity leads to lack of empathy and both are exaggerated by power, as Obama’s drone example shows. But it is not just in foreign policy that Romney displays this lack.

A clandestine video released a few weeks ago showed him saying that 47 per cent of US voters “believe they are victims” entitled to government support and that “my job is not to worry about these people”.

The term “victim” is as interesting as it is derogatory, as in this sentence from the video: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” That is a pretty contemptuous remark when applied to anyone, let alone to roughly 200 million citizens, including retirees, disabled ex-service personnel and people in receipt of the very tax credits introduced as Republican Party policy. And on at least one occasion, Romney said: “I don’t care about the poor”.

Like Obama, Romney shows an empathy gap, but the problem is that Romney shows it even before he has been neurologically transformed by presidential power. Romney has known only status, wealth and success in his life, and the evidence is that these things change people in a similar way to power.

In 2008, John Magee of New York University replayed the Cuban missile crisis with a group of students and staff from another US east coast university. Participants were given briefing papers about the course of events in Cuba and were then presented with a list of precisely those policy options that President Kennedy would have been given, ranging from “Ignore Khrushchev, bomb the missile bases and launch a full-scale US invasion to remove all offensive weapons and overthrow the Castro regime”, to “Accept Khrushchev’s proposals as they stand, and call off the blockade.”

Magee then rated the participants on the degree to which they were motivated by the personal need for power – a personal and ego-driven need for power, known as p-power.

Magee discovered that the higher the level of p-power in their volunteers, the more likely they were to advise the president to escalate the response; what’s more, the higher their level of p-power, the less they would have advised the president to deliberate before triggering a particular policy. A high p-power president, in other words, might have tipped the world into nuclear Armageddon.

The Kennedy brothers needed power, but their p-power was tempered, particularly in Bobby’s case, by a strong ethically-driven drive. Whether Jack would have been able to stand against his other advisers’ warlike impulses without his brother’s steadfastness is far from clear.

The psychological makeup of the next US president is crucial. With any luck, both candidates will rise to the challenge of any future Cuban-type crises. But diplomatic solutions demand empathy, and neither candidate has a brother at his shoulder.

Ian Robertson is visiting professor of neurology at Columbia University, New York, and is professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin. His book The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, is published by Bloomsbury. @ihrobertson

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