The neurobiological substrates of authority: costs and benefits. (Nov 2011)
“One cost of exerting authority is that its operation may be degraded under conditions of stress … this may be manifest in part as the ‘hubris syndrome’,
Professor Trevor W Robbins, Head of Psychology Department at the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge.
Published summary of a paper presented as part of the Tanner Lectures delivered at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, in November 2011.
Relatively little is known about how social authority is mediated by the brain. However, the executive functioning of the frontal lobes provides a useful model for understanding the importance of control over environmental contingencies and the resolution of conflict.
Neurobiological benefits of control are particularly evident in the regulation of the impact of stressors on the individual, but may also have intrinsically rewarding properties. One possible cost of exerting authority is that its operation may be degraded under conditions of stress (for example, resulting from exposure to a profusion of problems requiring difficult decisions).
Speculatively, this may be manifest in part as the ‘hubris syndrome’, an acquired personality disorder that often afflicts politicians (and probably others in positions of authority), with serious consequences for society 1. This Response will thus suggest that the benefits and costs of authority may potentially be understood in terms of decision-making mechanisms of the human brain.
1. Owen D. & Davidson J.B. Brain (2009) 132(5): 1396-1406