Sunday, May 16, 2010

Greed for power and brain activity

Most people in Britain, and many around the world, will have watched with (perhaps) some interest but with no surprise the dash for power between two parties – Conservative and Labour – neither of whom won an absolute majority. They haggled and bargained with the Liberal Democrats, offering all sorts of goodies to form a coalition government. They were both greedy for power, as indeed all politicians are.

But, on this occasion, it was putting short term gains before long term interests. Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, had warned days before the general election that the economic situation is so dire that whoever wins power will subsequently be out of power for a generation. This is because the government in power would have to take some very tough economic decisions to get Britain out of the deep financial problem that it is in.

No matter – the politicians want power and they want it now. Short term gains set against long term interests!

What is it that happens in the brain when an individual sacrifices long term interests for short term gains?

As it happens, a very interesting paper appeared a few months ago in the Journal of Neuroscience, which had studied this very problem. Using a relatively simple and clever design, the authors show that the impulse to immediate gratification – in which the reward parts of the sub-cortex of the brain play an important role – is “censored” or modulated by the frontal cortex. In situations where immediate gratification takes precedence over long term gains in the behaviour of individuals, there is a relaxation of the strength of activity between the frontal cortex – which might be thought of as censoring the sub-cortical nuclei - and the sub-cortical nuclei involved (the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area).

Hence one can surmise that among many politicians there must have been a significant reduction in the control that the frontal cortex exerted over their sub-cortical nuclei.

This of course raises the question of what factor inhibits these connections.

I have previously argued on this site that greed de-activates the frontal cortex in the brains of those who manage financial affairs. The study I refer to here is consistent with this suggestion, if one substitutes greed for power for greed for money. But it would be good to go beyond and learn how greed inhibits the judgmental activity of the frontal cortex.

1 comment:

Gene Ha said...

I don't know what UK politicians do after retirement, but in the US they can become very rich.

Members of the US Congress currently make about $174,000 per year. They can make much more working as lobbyists and consultants for companies dealing with our Federal government:
The move can be lucrative. Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle recently reported earning $2.1 million over two years as an adviser at lobbying firm Alston & Bird. The current majority leader's pay: $193,400 a year.

I would say this is a great example of delaying gratification. Every year spent in boring committee work, legislative wrangling and constituent service gives you more time to slip benefits to your cronies. When you leave Congress, they'll reward you amply.

And you can benefit your cronies more if you have more power, even for a short time.