What do Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have in common? Their eyes are out of whack. One eye bigger than the other, and also a little googly.
What’s that got to do with their alleged sexual predation? Everything.
They both look like they’ve been hit in the back of the head with a shovel and suffered brain damage. Because that’s precisely what too much power has done for Harvey and Bill.
This is the conclusion of Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, who has become the highly-quotable go-to guy for insights into the mystery of powerful creeps.
There’s a whole school of science dedicated to the problem. Professor Keltner has been working the beat for more than 25 years.
In August, he told The Atlantic that power can lead to a person becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and far less able to see things from other people’s point of view. All of these were symptoms of a traumatic brain injury.
Other researchers support that view. Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, studied the heads of powerful and less powerful subjects under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine. He found that “power impaired a specific neural process” called mirroring, that appears to be crucial to empathy.
Mirroring is an unconscious form of mimicry. When we see someone perform an action, “the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response”.
In his paper, Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others, published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, Professor Obhi describes an experiment where his test subjects watched a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.
In the less powerful subjects, the neural pathways for squeezing lit up like the dressing table in a starlet’s trailer. In the powerful subjects, not so much brain activity.
This week Professor Keltner was back in the news, after publishing an essay in the Harvard Business Review entitled Sex, Power, and the Systems That Enable Men Like Harvey Weinstein.
He pointed to studies that found powerful men overestimate the sexual interest of others and “erroneously believe that the women around them are more attracted to them than is actually the case”.
The sexualisation of work
Other research finds that powerful men sexualise their work, “looking for opportunities for sexual trysts and affairs, and along the way leer inappropriately, stand too close, and touch for too long on a daily basis”.
Power alone doesn’t make a sexual predator. There had to be a theoretically nasty side at work in a Harvey or a Bill before the power was attained.
Psychologists have tended to view power as a facilitator: if the powerful man has certain appetites, he takes advantage of his position to indulge himself, with little regard for how anyone else feels about it.
So, what do we do with a boy like Harvey? How can we get his brain working correctly?
Years ago, this author interviewed a dominatrix who told the usual stories of flogging judges, lawyers and politicians who recognised in themselves the need to be taken down a peg or two.
It could be that the brain damage from power healed itself a little with each lash.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Perhaps every government minister, CEO, anyone making more than six figures in the entertainment industry needs to start each day with a good flogging. Just to keep them humble.