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Predator Drones, Empathy and the President

September 29, 2012



CIA drone strikes have killed many more civilians than has been acknowledged by the Obama administration, researchers at Stanford and New York University Law Schools said in a report published Tuesday.

These strikes are decided on Tuesdays at a White House meeting  at which President Obama scrutinizes the vitae of a series of individuals and personally authorizes which will be targeted for predator drone attacks.

The first strike he ordered, just a few days after he took up office, appeared to upset him when he was told that innocent people, including two children, had been killed in the attack. [i]

Yet three years later, at the 2012 Washington White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner, the president gave a jokey warning to the Jonas Brothers: “Sasha and Malia are huge fans but, boys, don’t be getting any ideas,” he said about his daughters, continuing, “I have two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking?” 

President Obama’s predator drone gag was certainly funny, but if you or I had been shown evidence that our decisions had caused the death of children, and week after week we had to take the risk of doing so again, would we not feel it hard to joke about the process, whatever the rights or wrongs of the actual strikes? 

What could account for such a change in psychological response to this presidential duty?  What could explain this change in empathy? There is only one drug strong enough to produce such a change,  power. As the most powerful person in the world, President Obama controls resources that hundreds of millions of people need, want or fear – including life itself. Holding such power for almost four years will almost certainly have caused significant changes in his brain, and the appearance of his empathy gap is just one symptom of this.

Power increases production of the hormone testosterone in both men and women, and this in turn increases activity in the brain’s dopamine networks. Dopamine is a chemical messenger central to the brain’s ‘reward network’ which is the common pathway for all our ‘feel good’ experiences from getting a pay rise, through receiving a complement to having sex.  

Dopamine activity changes also alters our cognitive functions, particularly in the frontal lobes of the brain and this is why power can change how we think – not least in reducing our capacity for empathy. And there is a good reason for this – if you hold a significant amount of power there is less need for you to try to understand what others are thinking, feeling or intending, because you have the power to control events. 

Being under someone else’s power, on the other hand, makes it imperative that you become an excellent and empathic mind-reader, because what happens to you depends on what that person is thinking, feeling or intending.

 Research by Deborah Gruenfeld and colleagues at Stanford University has shown that wealth empowers and activates the dopamine system of the brain and that successful businessmen are more likely than business students to view other people as objects in terms of their usefulness to them rather than empathically, as individuals.

Gruenfeld’s research also showed that temporarily inducing feelings of power among students reduced their empathy, making them more likely to view others in terms of their usefulness to them. 

Power can have positive effects too: because of its effects on the frontal lobes via dopamine, it can increase abstract and strategic thinking, reduce anxiety, and boost boldness by decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Power, in other words, may be both a stress-reliever and somewhat of an anti-depressant. Which is just as well, given the enormous stresses that being president involves. 

Power’s brain-changing effects were almost certainly evolutionarily essential for a social, group species like homo sapiens. We need our leaders to be smarter, more strategic and bolder in order to inspire us to act together to combat the deadly threats that have always assailed us. We cannot afford to have leaders who suddenly leave the job with stress-related illness, as Japanese premier Shinzo Abe did in 2007 after only one year in office.

But the problem with power and its dopamine partner is that it has, like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ where both too little and too much impair the brain’s functioning. 

Democracy and its artifacts – elections, fixed terms in office, free press, a constitution and an independent judiciary evolved because unfettered power is too strong a drug for any individual brain to tolerate. Absolute dictators behave bizarrely not mainly because they have abnormal personalities before gaining power, but rather because power so floods their brains with dopamine that it completely disrupts brain function.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the drone attacks, we have to be grateful that US presidents have their power constrained by democratic instruments, but that does not change the fact that power will changes, psychologically and neurologically. 

Ian H Robertson

Visiting Professor of Neurology

Columbia University, New York

Professor of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland



[i] Newsweek, May 28th 2012

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