Why schools must fight the power

10th March 2006 at 00:00
A school's worth is too often judged by how many of its pupils go on to make a "success" of their lives. But that success can be narrowly defined by riches, power or status.

Yet society is agreed that power corrupts. Shouldn't we therefore be educating students about how to handle it? Even if they don't become powerful themselves, they will inevitably have power wielded against them.

Dr Dacher Keltner and colleagues from the University of California at Berkeley recently published a summary of psychological experiments that suggest the achievement of power has an extraordinary and disturbing effect on the brain and mind. There are profound biological changes, including higher testosterone levels, but it's the psychological consequences that appear particularly pertinent.

Keltner and his colleagues point out that powerful people enjoy more rewards and freedoms than others. They are quick to detect opportunities for material benefits - wealth and physical comforts - as well as social rewards such as flattery, esteem, attraction and praise, which are easy to overlook as they're often hidden from the news cameras.

The experience of power also promotes the belief that you can act at will without interference or serious social consequences; that you are untouchable. Powerful people take more risks as they're oblivious to the pitfalls, plus there's no one to tell them they're making a mistake; the phrase "drunk with power" has a deeper psychological reality than previously realised.

There's worse to come. Powerful managers, say the researchers, do not value the efforts of their subordinates; they take credit for their work at the same time as distancing themselves from them. They adopt an ever more vainglorious self-image and, as a consequence, denigrate the less powerful.

But power does not turn everyone's head, say the psychologists, just those most susceptible to its seductions. They tend to be over-confident people who need to dominate others; in other words, precisely the kind of people who gravitate towards politics and power. The leader least likely to let us down is, paradoxically, the candidate most reluctant to seek power.

Should we not, therefore, be preparing tomorrow's leaders by teaching them something about the psychology and politics of power, before they enter that dangerous arena?

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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