Are Mugabes of this world brain damaged?

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OH, IT is tempting to say all sorts of gleeful things about the fall of the House of Mugabe, isn’t it!

I did find Grace Mugabe’s shock at the unfolding of events wryly amusing – and interesting. It’s a reminder of an underlying truth behind the old adage, “Power corrupts”. Yes, it does. It corrupts your brain.  It makes you lose touch with reality and, importantly, actually reduces your brain’s ability to ‘feel for’ other people.

“…we propose that the default effect of high power appears to be reduced interpersonal sensitivity,” said Jeremy Hogeveen, Michael Inzlicht and Sukhvinder S Obhi in a 2014 paper that physically looked at what power did inside people’s brains (Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General Vol. 143, No. 2, 755–762).

In fact, another scientist studying power, Dacher Keltner, explains that powerful people develop a similar condition to those who’ve suffered actual physical injuries to the brain that cause ‘acquired sociopathy’, characterised by, you know, reduced empathy, lack of remorse and shame, egocentricity, insincerity and lying, superficial charm… “Our lab studies find if you give people a little bit of power, they look kind of like those brain trauma patients,” says Keltner.

It seems that there might be some truth to the concept of being “mad with power”:

(EPA Official: Sir, I’m afraid you’ve gone mad with power. 
Russ Cargill: Of course I have! You ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring! No one listens to you! The Simpsons Movie)

The cotton-wool entourage of eager-to-please sycophants that swaddles the powerful, like Grace and Robert Mugabe, is part of the mechanism behind this erosion of the ability to “walk in another man’s moccasins”.

In an Atlantic article,, Keltner noted that “the powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people ‘stop simulating the experience of others,’ Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an ‘empathy deficit’.”

The top echelons of society – both the politically and the economically powerful – live in an echo chamber which validates and never challenges them, that doesn’t ask or demand that they try to ‘feel for’ and with others. So you get leaders like Donald Trump, for example, saying that the hurricane-lashed Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them…”

Zim’s empathy deficit

There’s been a huge empathy deficit at the top in Zimbabwe for years. So it’s easy to sympathise with the heartfelt delight and surging hope of those rejoicing in the downfall of Robert and Grace… and to feel a wistful yearning for a similar day of celebration here in South Africa.

But. “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme,” as Mark Twain never wrote, apparently (it’s one of those widely attributed quotes which have no source). We’ve seen this movie before: despot, military coup, military rule, promised election… it’s just swapping one set of sociopaths for another, equally lacking in the empathy lobes.

So here’s my question: what do Zimbabweans – what do we all – need to do to change the movie, to change the script, to create a fairer and more equitable world?

“Instead of succumbing to the Machiavellian worldview […] we must promote a different model of power, one rooted in social intelligence, responsibility, and cooperation.”

Professor of neurology and neurological sciences Robert Sapolsky wrote a wonderful, funny and moving book, Primate Memoir, about his years studying a troop of baboons in Kenya. It ended when the troop got TB and almost half the males died. But the story, and his studies, didn’t end there.

Turns out, the deaths weren’t arbitrary. If you were the classic alpha male, the thuggish bully who had little real social connection and spent your time scheming power moves, you died, as Sapolsky explains in this video. (Your blood pressure and stress hormones were high; you looked tough but were more vulnerable – familiar, much?)

Far more of the beta males, the ‘underdogs’ who’d not succeeded in the battle for success and status, survived, as well as twice as many females – and they went on to co-create, with the females, an unusual troop. Gentle, socially affiliative, socially intelligent, no-thugs-allowed.

When young male baboons reach a certain age, they ‘transfer out’ to a distant troop (it’s a way of ensuring genetic diversity, and, by the way, it’s the reason so many baboons come into conflict with humans as they cross what used to be open veld to seek out other troops, running into newly built townships and Tuscan townhouse developments where the humans scream and shoot to kill…).

“Jerky” young baboon males, as Sapolsky describes them, raised to admire the traditional thuggish alpha, who transferred into this troop though, experienced a culture shock. They took about six months to realise that “we don’t do things like that here”. This became a very long-lasting culture (when the video was made, nearly ten years ago, it had already endured twenty years).

We have to find a way of triggering this kind of culture change across the world. And it’ll probably work best if it begins with you and me, rather than the politicians. So “be the change you really want to see in the world”, in your workplace, home and organisation.  

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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