Psychologist’s conference talk explores how head wins over heart in the quest for power

The abuse of power in public life is never far from the headlines, with leaders in politics, banking, the law and the media all shown to be expert in bending the rules for themselves at the expense of everyone else.

But what makes a banker, a police chief or a media baron behave in this way? Does power corrupt, or are powerful people exhibiting the symptoms of a personality abnormality?

University of Sussex psychologist Dr Jamie Ward will join psychiatrists and neuroscientists in a special conference in London today (Tuesday 9 October 2012) to explore the pathology of leadership and decision-making.

The conference – The intoxication of power: From neurosciences to hubris in healthcare and public life – is hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine and the Daedalus Trust.

With new developments in cognitive, affective and social neuroscience, science is now looking at possible mental processes behind the accumulation and abuse of power by humans – and what steps can be taken to curtail excesses that damage public trust in our major institutions.

It’s a phenomenon that led the politician Lord David Owen, who has lectured and written on the subject, to term the negative impact of power on people’s judgments and outlooks the Hubris Syndrome.

Dr Ward, who has published on the subject of social neuroscience and is Editor-in-Chief of Cognitive Neuroscience, will lead a session on trust and cooperation, arguing that a lack of human empathy (the identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings and motives) may be a necessary brain trait for leaders who carry out systematic acts of aggression or exploitation.

Dr Ward’s research uses the methods of human neuroscience (such as brain imaging, EEG) to explore how we perceive and interpret the world, including our social world.  He says: “The study of the brain can help us to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the presence of others. 

“We can attempt to measure concepts such as empathy in the brain. Our brains are wired to share thoughts and feelings. When we see someone in pain we activate our own pain circuitry, and when we see someone gesturing we activate our own motor circuitry. 

“However, our brains are more likely to share feelings and imitate people who are in our own social group. Power may exert a similar influence, leading to reduced empathic tendencies in the powerful towards subordinates and a reduced tendency to take other people’s perspectives into consideration."

But, argues Dr Ward, this is not necessarily a negative trait: “It can sometimes be desirable for people in power to take a less emotive, albeit self-serving, perspective.  That said, the same mechanisms can also pave the way for abuses of power.”

Notes for Editors

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

View press releases online at:

Last updated: Tuesday, 9 October 2012