We’ve all witnessed it–people in power acting badly. You can’t watch the news without encountering powerful people who seem to be incapable of understanding the lives of us “common folk,” or even of telling right from wrong.

Take CEOs of large corporations, for example. In just the last couple of years, we’ve seen John Stumpf, then-CEO of Wells Fargo, who apparently created a culture in which employees were pressured to create fake accounts for customers and swindle them out of their hard-earned money. Hauled in front of a congressional committee, Stumpf delivered one of the weakest, clearly unfelt “apologies” you’ll ever hear and seemed for the most part baffled why everyone was making such a fuss (Useem, 2017).

Then we had Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, who’s company raised the price of life-saving EpiPens from $103.50 in 2009 to $608.61 in 2016. When pressed on her reasoning for the hike in her own congressional hearing, Bresch blamed everyone except herself and her own company. If we’re to believe her, everyone else in the supply chain for the EpiPen was price gouging, and poor little pharmaceutical giant Mylan has been portrayed unfairly. Bresch was quoted as saying “I get the outrage,” but everything in her tone of voice and body language screamed, “I don’t understand why you’re all so upset. It’s just business” (CBS News, 2017).

And then there’s Donald Trump. I rarely stray into political waters when writing about education issues because politics isn’t my area of expertise. But I have to make a brief exception today simply because Trump’s behavior provides perhaps the best current example of the issues I’m discussing in this article. When we look at Trump, who has been in a position of power for decades now, first as head of his own real estate empire and now as President of the United States, we see perhaps the epitome of bad behavior–toward women, Mexicans, people of the Islamic faith, the press….the list goes on and on. It appears that, outside of his closest inner circle, everyone else is considered by Trump to be a “loser.”

Hubris Syndrome

What’s going on here? Sure, we’ve all heard the famous quotation by Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and we can certainly point to plenty of evidence throughout history to support such a claim. But what’s going on inside the brains of these powerful people that leads them to be so callous to so many people?

Well, it turns out that this question has been studied quite a bit, by both psychologists and, more recently, neuroscientists, and it seems that there are, in fact, actual physiological reasons underlying the bad behavior of so many powerful people.

One fascinating study (Galinsky et al., 2006) primed half of the study’s participants to feel more powerful by having them recall a time when they were in a position of power and primed the other half of the participants to feel less powerful by having them recall a time when others had power over them. The researchers then gave participants from both groups a marker and asked them to write a capital letter “E” on their foreheads for someone else to read. The results? Those who had been primed to feel powerful drew the letter from their own perspective (backwards to everyone else) three times as often as those who had been primed to feel less powerful. In other words, they literally had trouble seeing things from the visual perspective of someone else.

In another experiment in this same study, Galinsky and his colleagues once again primed participants to either feel more powerful or less powerful. They then asked participants from both groups to look at pictures of people expressing the emotions of either happiness, sadness, fear, or anger. They found that the participants who were feeling more powerful made far more errors, suggesting that when one feels more powerful, he begins to lose the ability to read others’ emotions and to feel empathy for them.

The debilitating results of power on personality and relationships have been found so consistently in so many research studies, in fact, that it has even been assigned a clinical name: Hubris Syndrome. Psychiatrists have listed 14 symptoms constituting the syndrome, including:

  • a narcissistic propensity to see the world as an arena in which to exercise their own power
  • a disproportionate concern with image and perception
  • a messianic manner of talking about current activities
  • excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others
  • exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve
  • loss of contact with reality

Sound like anyone you’ve seen in the news lately (or maybe on Twitter)?

British neurologist Lord David Owen, who spent a few years as a foreign secretary for Great Britain, has researched Hubris Syndrome extensively, especially as it has manifested itself in the lives and careers of United States presidents and British prime ministers since 1900. He wrote about this research in his book, In Sickness and in Power.

“Humbris Syndrome,” Owen writes, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” In other words, one isn’t born with Hubris Syndrome, but it can manifest itself at any age, developing when one finds oneself in a position of power and holds that power for a period of time.

Power Causes Brain Damage!

For many years, hubris has been studied by psychologists from the outside (that is, by observing behavior). More recently, however, neuroscientists have begun to use technological tools to observe what’s taking place inside the brains of powerful people.

In one such study (Hogeveen, Inzlicht, & Obhi, 2014), researchers hooked subjects up to a transcranial magnetic stiumulation device to measure brain activity. As in the research studies quoted above, subjects were primed either to feel more powerful (in this case by writing about an incident when they had power over another person); less powerful (by writing about a time when they felt powerless); or were assigned to a neutral group (who wrote about what they did the previous day). All subjects then watched videos of a person squeezing a rubber ball in one hand. The researchers hypothesized that those subjects who had been primed to feel powerful would show a reduced response in their mirror neuron systems, and this is exactly what they found. When we observe other people doing something, mirror neurons fire in the same way that they would normally fire if we were involved in the activity ourselves. This mirror system is thought to be at least partially responsible for our ability to resonate with the actions of others, to see things from someone else’s perspective, and to feel empathy for others. It appears that the responsiveness of this mirror system is reduced in people who are feeling powerful.

7 Steps You can Take to Prevent Hubris Syndrome

OK, so you may be thinking at this point, “How does any of this apply to teachers, students, and the classroom?” Good question!

Here’s my explanation for why I’m writing about this topic on an education website (beyond just the fact that I find the topic interesting). I believe that we, as educators, are responsible for developing our students into well-rounded people, not just thinking machines who can crank out the right answers on standardized tests. Conscientious teachers have always paid as much attention to how their students behave as they have to how well they think.

Given this goal of producing well-rounded people, what, if anything, can we do in our classrooms to prevent our students from becoming power-mad monsters as adults? Well, first of all, let me admit that I don’t know for sure that anything we do will completely innoculate our students from becoming this kind of person. Remember, Hubris Syndrome (and its attendant brain damage) doesn’t manifest itself until/unless a person actually finds himself in a position of power and stays in that position for an extended time.

On the other hand, not everyone who ends up in a postion of power develops Hubris Syndrome. There are plenty of examples of powerful people who appear to be wonderful human beings who lead their organizations benevolently, never get caught up in a scandal, contribute to charities, etc. So, clearly, something about the way these people look at life and look at their role in their organizations keeps them from developing all the negative characteristics that describe Hubris Syndrome.
My guess is that certain habits, developed early in life, helped these people remain humble even after they achieved great power. So it’s my guess (and my hope) that what we do in our classrooms now can make a big difference in how these people turn out in the future if they ever find themselves in positions of power.

Which takes us to the question of what, specifically, we should do to predispose our students to be the benevolent type of powerful person as opposed to the power-hungry monsters that usually get all the attention in the press. I’m sure you have your own great ideas, but here’s my list of seven things we can do.

1. Spend Time Building Classroom Community

The more we focus on helping our students build relationships of respect for other students in the class, the more that respect for others may translate to the world beyond our classroom. Starting off the year by getting students to know each other better, setting up our classrooms to facilitate collaboration instead of competition (see #3 below), having clear expectations about respectful language and behavior, promoting active listening, keeping a sharp lookout for bullying behavior and nipping it in the bud immediately, etc., all combine to create that “extended family” feeling that leads to a productive and happy working environment in the classroom. The bonus from this effort is that it might also go a long way toward building the habits of respectful interaction in our students that could carry over into their adult lives and inoculate them against Hubris Syndrome.

2. Give Students Power through Curriculum and Instruction

I can hear you thinking it already: “Hey, you’ve been talking about how power leads to hubris and a lack of empathy, and now you’re saying we should give students more power?!” Yes, to a certain extent. Let me explain. First, we can’t teach students about how to handle power if we never give them any power. I’m not talking here about turning over total control of your classroom to your students. I’m just talking about giving students some say-so in the direction of their education, within reason–for example, by giving them choices on assignments, by giving wide latitude on topic selection for writing projects, by giving groups of students some autonomy in how they divide up the group’s work, etc. In addition, when we give students power, it gives us the chance to monitor how they handle that power. If we see any incipient abuses of power, we can step right in, do some friendly counseling, and offer better choices.

3. Use Cooperative Learning Strategies

Using cooperative learning groups as the default seating and work structure in your classroom can go a long way toward developing key habits of working together with others. But I don’t think doing a random cooperative learning activity once a week will do the job. If students sit down face to face and shoulder to shoulder with other students every day and work toward the academic objectives of the class, they build over time many social-emotional skills in addition to cognitive skills. More specifically, as it relates to today’s topic, working every day with a team of others teaches students to use power (as when they are the project leader for a task) benevolently and share power equally when the work doesn’t require a leader to be designated.

4. Incorporate Service Learning

Beyond learning to work well with others inside the classroom, working on a community issue as a project that extends beyond the classroom is a wonderful way not only to put newly-acquired academic skills to work in a real-world environment, but also to develop empathy for others in the community who may be facing serious challenges (physical, financial, emotional, etc.).

5. Make Empathy a Learning Objective

Whenever possible, try to get students to see events and issues from multiple perspectives. I know that some subjects (math, physical education, physics) don’t lend themselves easily to this goal, but others (especially literature and history) deal with the interactions of people (real or fictional) constantly. Rather than just have students read the story or novel, or rather than just have students learn the facts about a historical event, make an effort to discuss the power dynamics taking place in the events described. Focus not only on what happened, but how the people or characters involved must have felt. Building a predisposition to empathize with the plight of others is one of the best ways I can think of to stave off hubris.

6. Give Students Chores

As a natural extension of building a classroom community, I think it’s a great idea to explain to students that your classroom is their classroom, as well, and they have a responsibility to keep it looking good and in perfect working order. Divide up all the day-to-day work that needs to take place in your classroom into tasks, and assign those tasks on a rotating basis to your students. I’m talking about everything from keeping supplies neat and accesible to cleaning the blackboard/whiteboard at the end of an activity to mopping the floor once a week or so after school hours. In fact, I believe that if I still had my own classroom today, I would tell the school maintenance staff not to clean our room (I would, of course, let them take care of any major maintenance issues that I and the students couldn’t handle). Having our students take care of such duties accomplishes two wonderful goals at once: (1) it gives them a sense of ownership and pride in their classroom community (which includes the physical classroom itself) and (2) it teaches them that no one is exempted from doing their part. It’s hard to get a big head when one’s down on one’s knees scrubbing baseboards!

7. Don’t Praise Excessively

I’ve written entire articles on the right and wrong ways to use rewards in the classroom, so I won’t go into detail here. For today’s purposes, I’d just like to caution you against using excessive praise. Many teachers have developed a habit of constantly praising students for doing things that should simply be expected of them as students. This practice often leads some students to stop believing you. Overuse of praise when it isn’t warranted makes students’ “BS monitors” go off. When they think you’re just praising them as a way of manipulating them, they will work less hard. The other possible problem occurs when they believe this excessive praise. Those students prone to hubris may very well begin to think that they’re “all that,” which could predispose them to becoming the kind of terrible leader discussed at the beginning of the article if they ever happen to find themselves in a powerful position. So keep it real. If a student does the work she’s supposed to do, tell her thank you, but don’t gush about how wonderful she is. Give praise more sparingly, and dispense it only when students truly go above and beyond the call. This practice sends the message that extra effort is required to receive praise–a good message to send, I think, and one that would likely motivate more students to give that extra effort.

Conclusion: But Will It Matter?

I started this article talking about the problem of Hubris Syndrome as manifested in the lives of some of the world’s more powerful people. Can such abuses of power be stopped? Honestly, I don’t know, but as educators, I think it’s our job to at least try to guide our students toward becoming the kind of people who benefit society. Instituting policies like the ones listed above may very well keep some of our students from becoming abusers of power later in life.

But what if these strategies don’t work? What if, twenty or thirty or forty years from now, one of your students becomes the next John Stumpf or Heather Bresch or Donald Trump? Well, first of all, don’t beat yourself up about it. That person was probably predisposed to hubris and abuse of power from the beginning. Plus, we only have our students for a year, anyway. Many others impact their lives during their formative years.

But even if that happens, think about all the benefits for your classroom and all your other students of applying the strategies listed above. For every one student that somehow develops over-weaning hubris later in life, hundreds or even thousands of students will benefit from learning to work well with others, to be respectful, to share power freely, and to pull their share of the load.

If you have thoughts, questions, or comments to share about today’s topic, I’d love to hear them. You can reach me at info@teachingthatsticks.com. Till next time,

Sources

CBS News. (2017, January 27). Mylan CEO on EpiPen drug price controversy: “I get the outrage.” Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/epipen-price-hike-controversy-mylan-ceo-heather-bresch-speaks-out/

Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006, Dec. 1). Power and perspectives not taken.  Psychological Science, 17(12), 1068-1074. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01824

Hogeveen, J., Inzlicht, M., & Obhi, S. (2014). Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 143(2), 755-762.

Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. (2009, Nov. 1). Losing touch. Retrieved from https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/losing_touch

Owen, D. (2008). In sickness and in power: Illness in heads of goverment during the last 100 years. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Owen, D. and Davidson, J. (2009). Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US presidents and UK prime ministers over the last 100 years. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 132, 1396-1406. doi: 10.1093/brain/awp008

Useem, J. (July/August 2017). Power causes brain damage. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/epipen-price-hike-controversy-mylan-ceo-heather-bresch-speaks-out/