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Does power damage male brains? #MeToo prompts us to examine the motivations of abusers.

What’s fun and flirtatious in one brain may well be disturbing and repellent in another.
Image: A businessman looks out the window of a meeting room
Are powerful men truly unable to fathom the impact of their behavior on female employees? Howard Kingsnorth / Getty Images
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Again and again, men accused of sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo have struck a common note in their responses, one that rings anywhere from false to bewildering: “The situation was mutual.”

On the extreme end of the spectrum there’s movie boss Harvey Weinstein, who responded to actress Uma Thurman’s claims that he sexually assaulted her by describing an alternative universe: “a flirtatious and fun working relationship” which resulted in an “awkward pass.” Given the extent of the accusations against him, it’s hard to imagine Weinstein really thought he was operating in the realm of reciprocal exchanges.

Then there are cases like that of former Minnesota Public Radio humorist Garrison Keillor, who has been met by multiple allegations of unwelcome workplace sexual behavior, including explicit emails. The radio icon insisted that the woman “enjoyed the flirtation” and the attraction was “mutual.”

While Weinstein is clearly a deranged outlier, what do we make of the apparent cluelessness of evidently sane, intelligent men whose contributions to American society are valued by multitudes? Did they truly not fathom the impact of their behavior on female employees? Did they miss some vital social cues?

What do we make of the apparent cluelessness of evidently intelligent men whose contributions to American society are valued by multitudes?

Recent research suggests the answer could be “yes.” Along the way, something may have happened to the brains of powerful men — not from falling off a ladder, but from rising to a lofty position.

A number of studies now show that when people acquire power, measurable changes can occur in their mental capacity. Two decades of research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, author of “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence,” indicates that those feeling powerful may experience a drop in their ability to interpret the emotions of others, to adjust to other people’s behavior and to empathize.

These changes can be so pronounced, according to Keltner, that they manifest similarly to what happens when a person sustains a traumatic brain injury. For some, obtaining power “incapacitates your frontal lobes,” Keltner explained at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Turns out that getting promoted to the top may be a nice boost to the ego, but could work more like a sudden blow to the head. People can become more impulsive and pay less heed to risks, observes Keltner, who directs the Social Interaction Lab at UC-Berkeley. They may have trouble seeing things from anyone else’s perspective.

The work of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi and his colleagues suggests that power may affect a neural process known as “mirroring.” When you watch someone doing something, like squeezing a ball, certain regions in your brain get activated — the same ones that would fire if you performed the action yourself. The brain resonates with others’ behavior, a process that may help us gauge actions and intentions. But the powerful appear to respond less to what others are doing: Their brains just don’t seem to care as much.

The powerful appear to respond less to what others are doing: Their brains just don’t seem to care as much.

Some scientists think that mirroring is crucial to experiencing empathy. When you see someone who is upset, for example, you feel upset too, because your mirror neurons are firing. If this capacity is weakened, you lose the ability to register the other’s emotions — you just don’t feel their pain.

Another piece of the power puzzle could be a phenomenon researched by psychologist Jon Maner known as “sexual overperception,” which can cause the powerful to expect sexual interest, misread social cues and make unwanted advances to subordinates of a different gender.

If you get the sense that your boss really doesn’t see you or read you accurately, you may be onto something. And it might be worse if your boss is a “he.”

Because some researchers now think that power may not affect men and women the same way. During his comments at Davos, Keltner argued that power is particularly damaging to men:

If I’m powerful and I’m a man, and I’m interacting with a woman who is less powerful, I’m just going to be feeling more sexually aroused. That’s well documented in a lot of studies. I’ll act on those impulses. I’ll be approaching their space, saying suggestive things, etc. Here comes the problem: I erroneously believe that the woman around me is attracted to me when in fact she’s feeling repulsed or anxious.

Keltner points to increasing amounts of social science data that suggest women in leadership positions tend to be more collaborative and less prone to corruption and abuse.

It’s not just about testosterone, Keltner explained, but what he describes as “default tendencies” that define men and women in our culture, such as the tendency to characterize men as risk-takers, more aggressive and tending to sexualize situations that others don’t perceive as sexual. Power, says Keltner, can amplify these default tendencies.

Put all this together and you seem to get a perfect storm for #MeToo moments.

But if the brains of the powerful are liable to distortion, what can be done about it? Isn’t this just the nature of the beast?

In the #MeToo movement, there are basically two power dynamics at play: those between employers and subordinates, and those between men and women. Imbalances create potential pitfalls in both cases. But part of #MeToo is about recognizing and speeding up shifts in the balance of power along with the expectations of who wields it — and how they are culturally and legally sanctioned to use it.

Part of #MeToo is about recognizing and speeding up shifts in the balance of power along with the expectations of who wields it.

In both dynamics, questions have arisen about how people are going to recognize and confront situations that are out of balance and what kind of reaction they can expect when they do. Who is going to get the benefit of the doubt? What kind of boundaries and limits need to be in place?

For the past few decades, power has been trickling up to employers from workers, fueled by forces like the decline of unions and the rise of the gig economy. #MeToo has illuminated the need for better protections for employees, more collaborative power models and greater representation of women in management and boards.

Checks and balances are required so that the less powerful have secure channels to voice concerns and a fair forum in which to be heard.

One good sign is the first piece of proposed legislation to come out of #MeToo, a bipartisan bill which would help shift power away from management to those who report sexual harassment. The new law would end forced arbitration, a nasty bit of injustice written into the contracts of as many as 60 million Americans. It denies them due process if they are sexually harassed at the workplace.

Under forced arbitration, the accuser has to take a complaint to a privatized forum in which management is more likely to prevail than in a court of law. Every state attorney general is behind the bill. Large companies are paying attention: Microsoft has announced it is ditching the practice.

If we know that power distorts, then the solution is to rebalance it and try to ensure that people don’t get to wield it unchecked.

Workplace power disparities between men and women, evident in the wage gap and in the lack of women in leadership positions is, of course, part of a long history in which women’s roles in the broader culture have been systematically diminished. This ancient edifice got shaken up considerably in the 20th century, as women entered the workforce en masse and gained reproductive rights.

Now, #MeToo illustrates the cataclysms are far from over.

If we know that power distorts, then the solution is to rebalance it and try to ensure that people don’t get to wield it unchecked. Shared models of power and consciously reorienting ourselves towards interactions that are more empathetic and mutual are the antidotes to dynamics that are abusive and coercive.

Redefining masculinity is also part of the necessary shift. Historically, American society may have valued men as aggressive, sex-obsessed risk-takers — but cultural norms and expectations change.

The current script is not written in stone. After #MeToo, people who claim sexual harassment and abuse will more likely be believed. And those who assume sexual attraction on the part of others will, hopefully, check to see if the feelings are actually mutual.

What’s fun and flirtatious in one brain may well be disturbing and repellent in another. #MeToo is helping us all look in the mirror.

Lynn Stuart Parramore is a cultural theorist who studies the intersection between culture and economics. Her work has appeared at Reuters, Quartz, Lapham’s Quarterly, Salon, VICE, Huffington Post and others.

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