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Power & the Brain


Many people who have witnessed a colleague get promoted to an executive level have probably seen some changes in their behaviour, and not always for the better. Power it seems, has a profound effect on the neurocognitive system underlying behaviour. But what exactly is power and why is it important to study? Power is thought of as the ability to influence the behaviour of other people, often through control over their outcomes (i.e., by provision of rewards and punishments). Power is ubiquitous and can be found in almost all spheres of life including families, romantic partnerships, corporate environments, governments and international organizations, to name a few. Social psychologists have studied power for many years and found that it has many effects such as promoting the tendency to be more reliant on stereotypes and heuristics when performing tasks or making judgments about other people. Power has also been found to reduce perspective taking ability and seems to make people take more risks. Power tends to facilitate action and approach behaviour in general, whereas powerlessness, it's opposite, makes people more likely to withdraw. Given these findings, it's no wonder that power is often associated with negative outcomes for the people surrounding power holders, although this is by no means always the case. It is important to better understand power to enable more effective interpersonal relationships in organizational environments, government and personal (i.e., non-work related) relationships. By understanding how power changes the brain and perceptual cognitive functions, we will be in a much better position to develop strategies that can help harness the positive effects of power and mitigate the negative consequences. In our lab, we take both a fundamental and an applied perspective in our work on this most interesting of constructs.


Our work on Power - from basic mechanisms to applied implications


Despite the impressive array of work on power from social psychology, there is very little work on how power affects the brain and the neurocognitive mechnaisms underlying social and non-social domains. That is, the neuroscience of power remains largely elusive. We study the effects of power on processes thought to be key for social functioning. We have identified effects of power on the tendency to mirror observed actions, the way in which emotions are recognized in facial expressions and bodily postures, the manner in which same and opposite sex individuals are perceived and the tendency to feel in control over outcomes. Some of this work has garnered international media attention and it has been featured in outlets such as National Public Radio, CNN and The New York Times, among others.


Our current work aims to integrate previous work from social psychology with the techniques and methods of cognitive neuroscience to gain a better understanding of exactly how power affects the brain and social functioning in a variety of environments. Dr. Obhi also takes an interest in the application of research on power to the workplace and organizational environments by delivering seminars and workshops to leaders of business and government.

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