Right about now, if we, meaning the American public, were asked our opinion of professional politicians, most of us would come up with some variation on, “I wish we could ship every one of the [your favorite vulgarity here]s off to Syria.” Survey after survey finds that Congress is only slightly more popular than rabies. The presidency will be won by the candidate who is feared and detested by fewer people than the other guy. In these and other ways, “public officeholder” is a lousy job. For openers, consider the company you have to keep. Beyond that, it’s certainly a physically unhealthy occupation. All that mingling with crowds and shaking the hands of strangers, it’s a bacterial minefield. And then there’s your diet.
The fact that you’re endlessly running for re-election or elevation to some political office — from governor or Congressperson down to alderman or zoning commissioner — means you’ll be required to enthusiastically participate in an endless promenade of potluck dinners, banquets, coffee-and-doughnut socials, union picnics, $500-per-plate fundraisers, service club waffle feeds and other events that invariably involve a modest number of registered voters and a great quantity of resoundingly unhealthy food. You will be obligated to sample a lot of cuisine, nutritionally catastrophic or not, lest you risk offending whomever prepared it. And that doesn’t count the meet-and-mingle photo op drop-ins at coffee shops, diners, truck stops, food carts and the like. The upside: as an elected official, you’ll enjoy the finest health plan that public money can buy. The downside: you’ll probably need it.
So why do some people so avidly, doggedly pursue political careers? The obvious answer: They love the feeling of power. The less obvious answer: They don’t just love it, they’re hooked on it. It’s more than just the emotional satisfaction inherent in having authority, in being able to have things your way. Power is more than just a perk or a privilege, it’s actually physically addictive.
At least, that’s the professional opinion of Dr. Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, and author of The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain. Here, I’ll let him provide the biological process:
Power changes the brain, triggering increased testosterone in both men and women. Testosterone and one of its by-products, called 3-androstanediol, are addictive, largely because they increase dopamine in a part of the brain?s reward system called the nucleus accumbens. Cocaine has its effects through this system also, and by hijacking our brain?s reward system, it can give short-term extreme pleasure but leads to long-term addiction, with all that that entails. Unfettered power has almost identical effects…
They’ve studied baboons and found that those who are low on the dominance ladder have similarly low levels of dopamine in the key areas of their brain, but if they somehow rise through the ranks to a higher status, their dopamine levels rise accordingly, making them more aggressive and sexually active. This calls into question the assumption that Type A personalities seek power; it may equally be that people who attain power become Type A personalities. That might explain in part why candidates who campaign swearing to serve a limited number of terms later renege and continue to run for re-election; beforehand, they merely wanted the office, now they need the office. As for the “sexually active” aspect, it would definitely explain certain foolhardy self- and career-destructive episodes of behavior by a long list of political eminences.
Problems arise, says Robertson, when the individual acquires too much power, which produces a kind of dopamine overload similar to the dopamine overload fueled by cocaine. And indeed, when you run down the list of psychological characteristics of powerful politicians on the one hand and heavy cocaine users on the other, there are almost too many parallels to dismiss: a sense of great energy and superior ability, extreme self-confidence, even cockiness, and a kind of euphoric detachment; but also hyperactivity, irritability, anxiety, and paranoia. Unfortunately, as power grows, so the dopamine flows, in increasing amounts which, if we were discussing drugs, would lead us to the word “overdose.”
Again, from Dr. Robertson: “But too much power — and hence too much dopamine — can disrupt normal cognition and emotion, leading to gross errors of judgment and imperviousness to risk, not to mention huge egocentricity and lack of empathy for others.” Ring any bells? I could run off a list of a dozen major political officeholders past and present who qualify for this description. So could you, although our lists would probably differ. Too much dopamine, and you get the packet of arrogance, impulsiveness and dissociation from reality that seems increasingly to go with elective office.
Fortunately for us all, power is like cocaine or heroin in another regard. Not everyone who gets a taste of it becomes addicted. Many are not strongly attracted to it, many more use it only sparingly, and others are actually uncomfortable with it. It doesn’t seem to be a red or blue thing, either; there are what look very much like power junkies on both sides of the aisle. I think Clinton, whom I admire, probably was addicted, while Bush the younger, whom I don’t, probably wasn’t — although Clinton fairly oozed empathy, and Bush was the poster boy for gross errors of judgment.
Obviously, the power-as-narcotic analogy is not a perfect one, but it does offer an answer to the question of why politicians pursue such a fundamentally unhealthy career and lifestyle: Health is not particularly important to the addict. And the notion that there are hopeless power junkies may offer some consolation to those who are hopelessly addicted to food. It could be worse. There are more damaging drugs than yours. At least food just goes to your body, not to your head.
(By Robert S. Wieder for CalorieLab Calorie Counter News):
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