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The Neurochemistry of Power Has Implications for Political Change

Power, especially absolute and unchecked power, is intoxicating. Its effects occur at the cellular and neurochemical level. They are manifested behaviorally in a variety of ways, ranging from heightened cognitive functions to lack of inhibition, poor judgment, extreme narcissism, perverted behavior, and gruesome cruelty.

The primary neurochemical involved in the reward of power that is known today is dopa­mine, the same chemical transmitter respon­sible for producing a sense of pleasure. Power activates the very same reward circuitry in the brain and creates an addictive “high” in much the same way as drug addiction. Like addicts, most people in positions of power will seek to maintain the high they get from power, some­times at all costs. When withheld, power—like any highly addictive agent—produces crav­ings at the cellular level that generate strong behavioral opposition to giving it up.

In accountable societies checks and bal­ances exist to avoid the inevitable consequenc­es of power. Yet, in cases where leaders possess absolute and unchecked power, changes in leadership and transitions to more consensus-based rule are unlikely to be smooth. Gradual withdrawal of absolute power is the only way to ensure that someone will be able to accept relinquishing it.

Dopamine and addiction

Human beings are characterized by “emo­tional amoral egoism.” Humans are emotional­ly driven and (for most of us, most of the time), our moral compass is malleable and heavily in­fluenced by circumstances, survival value, and our perceived “emotional self-interest.” Emo­tions, however, are not immaterial: they are neurochemically mediated and physical insofar as they have neurochemical correspondents.

Dopamine is responsible for producing a sense of pleasure and helps us to retain infor­mation and engage in reward-driven learning. It is released in certain parts of the brain by re­warding experiences, such as achievement, food consumption, and other pleasures of life. However, it is also produced in behaviors that may be unhealthy and life-threatening, such as substance abuse or gambling. Either way, do­pamine release is what makes people want to re-engage in these activities.

Dopamine activates a reward sys­tem that has been essential to our survival as a species, encouraging us to return to be­havior that is essential for life. This process is what I have previously called the “neu­rochemical gratification principle” (NGP), where even the expectation of a reward is believed to function in a similar way to re­ward itself. Yet, just as healthy behavior is repeatedly induced by our reward systems, so too is unhealthy behavior. Drugs, such as cocaine, nicotine, and amphetamines, also lead to an increase of dopamine in the re­ward system of the brain. Addiction is an extreme form of behavior that employs existing neuronal networks that produce manic behavior, manifested as elation, in­creased cognition, and grandiose self-per­ceptions. Hitler, Stalin, and Napoleon, for example, all appeared incapable of empa­thy and of comprehending the value of hu­man life, condemning thousands to death in suicidal military campaigns. Yet, it is like­ly that power itself (rather than any specif­ic behavioral aberration), may have been responsible for exaggerating certain behav­ioral traits that each individual exhibited.

Dopamine and power

The brain is neurochemically pre-pro­grammed to seek pleasure, regardless of its social acceptability or how it is derived. We are therefore all addicts, of one sort or an­other, to the extent that we are all engaged in pursuits that ensure dopamine and other neurochemicals flow. As such, we all avoid doing things that would result in dopa­mine withdrawal. In a similar way to drug addicts and alcoholics, people find it hard to admit that they are addicts of accept­ance/ esteem/power because of dopamine withdrawals that would result in doing so. Moreover, stopping addictive behavior that is harmful to self or others is not simply a question of will power.

Much like addictive drugs, power uses these ready-made reward circuitries, produc­ing extreme pleasure. In moderate amounts, dopamine can enhance dimensions of cogni­tive function, but may also make people impul­sive, less risk-averse, and less empathetic. High levels of dopamine are associated with a sense of personal destiny, risk-taking, preoccupation with the cosmic or religion, and emotional de­tachment that can lead to ruthlessness, and an obsession with achieving goals and conquests. Absolute power can also lead people to be­lieve that a spiritual force is guiding them even within established democracies. For example, former U.S. president George Bush told peo­ple that God wanted him to wage war against Iraq and his ally in the Iraq War, and former Brit­ish prime minister Tony Blair is also thought to have believed that God wanted him to take the country into war to combat evil. The certainty that such leaders seem to possess is a symp­tom of extremely high levels of dopamine. Not only are powerful individuals likely to be ego­centric, but also paranoid. The latter may be a consequence of self-deception in the face of conflicting advice from close associates.


The neurochemistry of power has implica­tions for politics and for political change. Since power activates our neuronal reward systems in the brain and, as such, is addictive, people in positions of unchecked power are likely to lack the self-awareness required to act with re­straint or to seek a consensual form of decision making. Dictators are, therefore, more likely to appear in situations where checks and balanc­es are not present or consolidated. Brutali­ty and a lack of regard for citizens of countries governed by leaders with absolute power will tend to be the rule, regardless of the psycho­logical state of the ruler.

Since sudden withdrawal of power like the abrupt withdrawal from drugs pro­duces uncontrollable cravings, those who possess power, especially absolute power, are highly unlikely to give it up willingly, smoothly, and without human and mate­rial loss. It is important to remember that power, like all human emotions, is neuro­chemically mediated and that unchecked power can create irrational, addicted, and destructive impulses.

This article originally appeared in Pol­itics in Spires, a collaborative blog that shares thoughts on politics and internation­al relations from scholars at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Nayef Al-Rodhan is Senior Associate Member at Uni­versity of Oxford.


Nayef Al-Rodhan is Senior Fellow and Centre Director of the Centre for the Geo­politics of Globalisation and Transnational Security at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland. Author of Emo­tional Amoral Egoism: A Neurophilosophi­cal Theory of Human Nature and its Uni­versal Security Implications. He also writes for the blog Politics in Spires. The Conver­sation is funded by the following univer­sities: Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, City, Durham, Glasgow Caledonian, Goldsmiths, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, The Open University, Queen›s University Belfast, Sal­ford, Sheffield, Surrey, UCL and Warwick. It also receives funding from: Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Wellcome Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foun­dation and The Alliance for Useful Evidence.

By Nayef Al-Rodhan

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