A Conversation with Professor Sukhvinder Obhi

‘Can we talk about Power?’ is an event which came about from my ongoing research into where power resides in the brain and body – ‘Neurology of Power’. I am particularly interested in what neuroscience can offer my research and this led me to Professor Sukhvinder Obhi. His work raises the importance of considering power neurologically as well as socially. After a few emails back and forth, and a bit of serendipity we met in Toronto in July 2019.

Over the last few years we’ve continued our conversation, a conversation that I suspect has benefitted me far more than him. What follows is a rare personal interview that he gave me during the pandemic in the summer of 2021. In it, Professor Obhi shares insights into power and our brains, and in my opinion, some invaluable wisdom as well. 

The Q&A below represents a transcript of a recorded conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length. I hope you enjoy reading about Sukhvinder and his work as much as I enjoyed interviewing him. Suzanne (Alleyne)

Suzanne: Why should we be talking about power? If you had just met someone how would you explain in a nutshell?

Sukhvinder: I think it’s quite simple,  you can’t understand human social behaviour without understanding power; power permeates every human relationship. Power and status underlie pretty much every single human interaction you can think of. And if we don’t think about it, we actually don’t get to understand human social behaviour very richly at all. 

So you’re a professor of social neuroscience. What is that and how did you get into it? 

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the brain, trying to understand how the brain works. Social neuroscience is more about the scientific understanding of how the brain enables social behaviour. So we’re really interested in specifically, the sociality that humans exhibit and the neural processes that underpin that sociality, and how we show up as social creatures. So that’s what I spend my days trying to figure out in various ways.

I began my work on sensory motor control, or how the brain controls movement, which led me to doing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. At that time, I was keenly aware of a big discovery in the 1990s, made by Italian neuroscientists. They were studying how monkeys reach out and grasp objects and by accident discovered that parts of the brain we might have previously thought were just to do with sensory motor control, were also involved with the observation of other people and potentially the understanding of other people. These neurons ended up being called mirror neurons, and they are the neurons that fire when we watch other people and when we observe other people’s behaviour. That discovery really got me interested in moving my research programme onto more social questions.  I soon started changing the focus of my research to looking at how we deal with other people.

How did power become your thing?

I was always absolutely fascinated by questions of human social diversity. I knew about social dynamics, I experienced it, I’ve been through it. So I was a very keen observer of social behaviour. When I became a professor and an independent researcher, I very quickly started gravitating towards those social questions. I was quite apprehensive  about  getting into research about diversity; there’s a long history of science and race for example – and that history has not been pretty at all. But I’ve embraced the idea that if we want to understand human sociality, and human social behaviour, then we have to understand it in the context of social diversity. And we have to name that explicitly. Now, my research tries to work on issues that draw on the context of diversity, power, and status differences, and how all of that affects basic neural and cognitive processing and social interaction.

if we want to understand human sociality, and human social behaviour, then we have to understand it in the context of social diversity. And we have to name that explicitly.

That’s brilliant, can we set out some definitions? I went straight into doing a masters, which is where I learnt about academic definitions. For anyone that doesn’t know, there’s often more than one academic definition for something. How do you define power?

I think one of the most accepted and basic definitions is that power is your ability to influence the states of other people. Sometimes that is qualified by influence through rewards and punishments, or through the control of resources. You can add qualifiers to it, but fundamentally, it’s about your ability to influence the states of others. 

And I suppose, for a lay person, that’s everything, isn’t it? You could have the ability to influence some part of someone’s life, the ways in which other people feel, think and behave. 

I would say power affects all of those elements, yes.

The social sciences (sociology, anthropology etc) talk about power, but neuroscience feels different. How is it different from other academic disciplines?

I think it’s important to say off the bat that if we want to understand power in its entirety, it does require a multidisciplinary and in fact, an interdisciplinary approach. What we do in social neuroscience that’s different, uniquely interesting, and important, is we start to understand the fundamental basis of how power works. We consider states of power, if you’re feeling very powerful or powerless. It’s one thing to describe those things in the abstract, and the phenomena that potentially could play out at a group level, but it’s quite another thing to ask what this might change in the brain, and to question the way the brain functions in relation to power . The brain is the thing that governs how we show up as people. Our behaviour is everything and it’s governed by the way the brain operates. So the ultimate thing to understand is the brain-based explanation of how differences in power and status can affect the ways in which we think, behave, and feel in relation to  other people. 

Our behaviour is everything and it’s governed by the way the brain operates

That statement from you is pretty much my North Star. When we first met, I asked what have we found out about power so far. So I want to ask again: if we were at a dinner party, what discoveries would you share? Are they facts or does this all continue to change as we find out more?

It’s important to remember that science doesn’t necessarily give you facts: science gives you evidence. And that evidence either supports a theory, or it doesn’t. So what we have are theories that are more or less well supported by scientific evidence. We’re not talking about hard and fast facts, because a future scientific experiment could always change the  picture. So what evidence have we collected about power? Gosh, there’s been a lot of work from a psychological perspective. To list a few things that are suggested by the evidence: When you feel powerful, you’re much more likely to approach situations and opportunities for rewards. Power can energize and activate the self, which means you are more likely to start going after your goals and pursuing them single-mindedly, sometimes regardless of consequences. There is also concrete evidence that powerful people can better deal with distractions in their environment and continue to pursue their goals. There is also support for the idea that powerful people are more likely to ignore social norms and are sometimes more prone to cognitive shortcuts like stereotyping for example. It’s important to note though, that powerful individuals are also more than capable of deep thinking in the pursuit of their goals, so much of how they show up is contextual. In contrast, people with low power are more likely to become distracted and be more tentative about translating perception into action. People in low power are more likely to be tuned to potential threats in their environments.

Going back to the mirror system in the brain (mirror neurons), when you put people in a state of high power the tendency towards mirroring and simulation tends to be reduced. Social psychologists would say that as power increases, so does social distance, you become less attuned to other people and enter a potentially more egocentric frame of mind.

Power is now at the forefront of my work and I’ve always had an awareness of it, but for anyone who hasn’t been thinking about power, why is it important? 

If you’re in a position of power, you by definition have disproportionate control over resources that affect other people. My colleague Dr. Keltner and his lab at Berkeley explicitly looked at people talking about how empathetic they feel as a function of power. They find high power people are less empathetic, which completely fits with our work on mirroring and what we call social attunement. They’re sort of converging lines of evidence. If it’s true that power reduces how much we mirror others and how much empathy we feel for them, you can imagine how that could affect outcomes. If you’re in a position to be able  to allocate resources to help people, but you’re not feeling empathy for them, you may be less attuned to their needs. Being very socially distant means you may not  take on their perspective, or understand what they’re going through.

If you’re in a position of power, you by definition have disproportionate control over resources that affect other people.

Of course, we’re not saying that power de facto causes this. There’s many different effects that power can create in the brain and on behaviour. And it’s more about how all of those effects together can increase or decrease the probability of acting in ways that could be damaging.

Digging deeper into how power works, I want to raise Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work, and what she says about the brain being a predictor in the context of constellations and interconnectivity. How would you link up prediction with the impact of power? 

Absolutely, she’s right: we think about the brain as a predictive machine. Should I do this? If I do this, what’s the likely outcome? For me, where that might fit with power, and this is speculation on my part, is the sort of predictions we make, and how that plays into approach-related behaviour and avoidance-related behaviour – that’s where you might see patterns emerge. If you start thinking about patterns of reinforcement that humans have experienced in a group context over time, you realise they are different for people who have power versus people who don’t have power. When you have power, that gives you access to resources, and resources are rewarding. The more resources you have, the more doors are opened, the more rewards you have. Over a lifetime, there’s a constant reinforcement of goal-seeking, reward-seeking type behaviour for those who have power. They get more opportunities for reward than people that don’t have power, so they learn to predict that approaching situations and people is a good thing. By comparison, low power people don’t necessarily get the same frequency of experiencing reward in that way, so their predictions may be different.

When you have power, that gives you access to resources, and resources are rewarding. The more resources you have, the more doors are opened, the more rewards you have.

I guess it’s all about context, where in the constellation you are at that moment. If you experience more power at home, but when you go to work you feel less, that will affect your behaviours. But can you change that physiologically in any given moment?

There is limited evidence that you can, in a sense, empower yourself. For example, research has revealed a stereotype that women are not as good as men at maths. Women are generally found to underperform on a math test when you make their gender very salient to them. What they found is that actually, when you make women feel more powerful,  thinking about a time when they had power or were in control of how things unfolded, through that exercise they actually don’t fall prey to stereotype threat in the same way. When you activate a memory, you are essentially able to relive the recalled experience of having power. And when you do that, it seems like that can have an effect on how you show up. It’s sort of like an inoculator against the stereotype threat to some extent. 

That brings me to another part of my current research, and a concept raised called neuroplasticity. How does the idea of power connect here?

When I mentioned reinforcement a moment ago, that’s how you learn things – by associating actions with consequences –  neuroplasticity refers to the capacity that the brain has for learning. If you’re in a reward-rich environment, that will lead to a certain type of learning, it will encourage the behaviours that you’re doing to get the rewards. If you’re in an environment that has much more threat and much more danger, and you’re constantly vigilant towards that, then different  behaviours get reinforced. The reward landscape can have a fundamental effect on people. 

I’m working with Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity who develop  programming and events that are inclusive of Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. Is your work situated in a Western context? Would it be different if you were doing that same work with communities that have more of a collective idea of power?

Yes, of course, our work is situated in a Western context: every bit of data we’ve collected has been collected in this context. Does that mean that the concept of power is a Western concept? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s quite a human tendency – in fact pretty much all animals have hierarchical organisation. It’s everywhere, it pervades the social world. I don’t think it’s a fundamentally Western phenomenon, but the data that we have is disproportionately Western. I think we need to pay a lot of attention to the interpersonal, but we need to have a very keen awareness of what’s happening at the group level as well and how different cultural orientations affect how power plays out. We have to be careful with generalisation of western research, so the question becomes, how do you work on this in a way that’s useful across cultural contexts?  

That’s something for the future, I think that’s part of what I want people to think about. What, if anything, has it made you think about power in society and power dynamics?

I come from a Sikh background and grew up in the UK. I suppose we were one of just a few non-white families in our area. In those formative years, I mean, it could be  quite hostile in those days towards people that looked different. My Dad wore a turban, I wore a turban, my brothers wore turbans and my Mom would wear traditional clothes sometimes. And all of that would attract quite a lot of negative attention, and racism and hostility. So that was kind of the upbringing. Don’t get me wrong, I had great friends at school as well, but I think dealing with the hostility that some people showed towards visible minorities was an important  part of growing up. In that sort of situation, power, or lack of it, are real issues, although I didn’t necessarily think about it in terms of power differences at the time – it was just “normal” life, and you had to deal with it.

And so for you, researching and writing about power, what extra power has that given you? Is it like a superpower to be in an environment and able to second-guess what people are thinking?

No superpowers unfortunately! I think it’s given me a heightened awareness of the disparities in power across situations, paying attention to peoples’ behaviour, and realizing that everyone can  fall prey to some of the traps that I talked about. For example, powerful people tend to disengage during conversation. If a powerful person is speaking, they will look at you and make eye contact when they’re  talking, but when you talk back to them, they might avert their  gaze, or might check their text messages. Next time you’re in a meeting, just observe who it is that does the interrupting; you’ll find it’s typically the powerful person in the room that interrupts more. When you read about and research those things, it opens your eyes a bit. Fundamentally, what we’re saying is that the degree of power you have changes the way that you see the world and the way you experience the world. So I think one part of it is just a heightened awareness of the fact that people may not see things the same way, I think that’s a very useful lesson. 

For the people who are going to be reading this in an organisational context, how does your work manifest? What’s the perfect relationship for you to have with an organisation – do they ask you to come and help them think about power? How do you take that academic thinking into the workplace?

Organisations are hierarchical. And when you’ve got that, you’ve got power differences: the people at the top who have more power than the people at the bottom. The argument I make is that power, unfortunately, is one of these things that can be weaponised – maybe unintentionally, sometimes maybe unwittingly. It can result in negative patterns of behaviour that hurt people and harm people, sometimes including the powerholder themselves. So given this the question for leaders is: why don’t we have more education around how to handle power and ultimately use it for good? And what power might do, or may be doing, that is bad? Why have we neglected that education? 

power, unfortunately, is one of these things that can be weaponised – maybe unintentionally, sometimes maybe unwittingly.

That’s the guise under which I would be contacted by corporations and organisations: thinking about leadership, and how leaders can take what we know about power to improve their leadership capabilities, to lead more inclusively. You need to explain what  power can do, how it can affect the way people think and act, and then give them strategies to help them avoid falling prey to the negatives, but help them harness the positives. 

If you work in an organisation, and have someone reporting to you, that last question feels really relevant. But I think the thing that I struggled with is to explain how everything you’ve just said about organisations relates to you as an individual. Why should someone who’s turning up to this event feel like this is relevant to them? 

Because fundamentally, they’re exactly the same processes. This happens everywhere, in any situation where there is a relative disparity in the amount of power and influence that people have. Parents and kids, intimate relationships and marriages, friendships, you name it, this happens everywhere. When you understand power, you start to begin to understand how it can, again, sometimes unwittingly, affect the way that you think, behave, and feel. And without that understanding, you are potentially likely to fall into what I’ve been calling power traps. 

One of the beautiful things about human beings is that we’ve evolved the ability to control, to some extent, how we show up. We’ve got the ability to think deliberately, we’re not always in reactive mode. With awareness comes the ability to be more deliberate, and that goes for any kind of relationship or social situation, across the board.

Something I learned while doing my master’s was about so-called impartiality and objectivity – I’m interested in who’s doing the research. I’m very conscious that I am a Black British woman with that lived experience, and you are who you are with your lived experience. I suppose a lot of our work has been naturally talked about in the context of who we are at this moment. So how can your work apply to and help everybody

I actually think it comes down to three key themes that are pretty universal: empathy, compassion, and humility. We know that power and status can increase social distance and self-focused attention, and can have negative effects on empathy. Empathy is a fundamental requirement for effective human social interaction: where there’s care for people, there’s a society in which human life and human experiences matter. Compassion is slightly different: empathy is the ability to feel with somebody what they’re feeling, whereas compassion is really about your response, and taking into account emotional state and perspective when you react. Without humility, to use a colloquial phrase, power can increase the likelihood of ego inflation, having humility can create the opposite effect. I always say that if we get a handle on empathy, compassion, and humility, that creates the space for the sorts of conversations we need to have to improve our society.

I always say that if we get a handle on empathy, compassion, and humility, that creates the space for the sorts of conversations we need to have to improve our society

And how do you see these understandings of power applying today, right now?

Bringing it to the coronavirus situation for example, the pandemic  certainly shone a light on the disparities that we have in human status in society. It’s been the case  that people who are in a position of higher socioeconomic status absolutely are in a position where they are mostly okay. They work from home, they have access to all the resources that they usually have, they’re able to earn money. People at the other end of the spectrum have to go to work, have to navigate a dangerous environment, and aren’t able to access the same level of resources. This reveals asymmetry with respect to access to resources – how powerful people can be relatively independent and socially distant because they’ve got everything they need. For those with lower power, on the other hand, it absolutely depends on whether you have the  resources to withstand something like this. 

The other part of this, of course, is what happened during Coronavirus in terms of the racial justice issues – in the US especially, but also all over the world. People may have had time to process things like the George Floyd killing, maybe think a little bit about what racial justice means or even the fact that racial injustice still exists. We’re in a very challenging moment, I think, as a society, as to how we go forward when we come out of this pandemic. Do we bring people together? Or do we succumb to forces in society that are trying to tear us apart? And how do we do it, how do you deliver on equity and inclusion and maintain social harmony? How will our leaders use their power? To unite or to divide? These are the key challenges.

So for leaders, for those in the workplace, or those who have come to this completely haphazardly, what’s the thing that you want people to take away from our conversation? What’s the one thing that you would like them to do, or be inspired by, or think?

That people’s experiences of the world are different, as a function of their background, environments and life histories. To move forward together in a fruitful way, we need to meaningfully engage with each other, take on each other’s perspectives, and really try to understand each other. And that requires going back to empathy, compassion, and humility and an openness to listening (and actually hearing) each other. 

Wow. Okay, so to conclude, if I could wave a magic wand, what kind of legacy do you want to leave for those who come after you? What would you like them to say about your work and what you’ve managed to achieve?

I don’t really like to think about legacy…but since you’ve asked the question, I should answer it!…I guess it’d be nice if they thought my work was relevant for diverse societies in which power and status differences exist. I think any researcher would be humbled if any of their work could contribute, even in a small way, to maybe making a positive difference.

About Professor Sukhvinder Obhi

Professor Sukhvinder Obhi is a professor of social neuroscience. He focuses on how we show up as social creatures by looking at our behaviours as well as our neural processes. He is the director and principal investigator of the Social Brain Body and Action Lab at McMaster University, Canada, and regularly consults for the private sector on issues of leadership, power, and diversity and inclusion. He completed his PhD in cognitive neuroscience at University College London. 

Professor Obhi studies how power and status differences among humans affect the brain, thinking, and behaviour. He also studies nonverbal behaviour, mirroring, and mimicry. His work has been foundational in this larger study of power by suggesting a deeper, biological component of this phenomenon and raising the importance of considering power as not just a social force, but as a phenomenon rooted in the brain. 

Suzanne Alleyne

Professor Sukhvinder Obhi was interviewed by Suzanne Alleyne, a cultural thinker, creator of the research project Neurology of Power ™, founder of the consultancy and cultural incubator Alleyne& and co-creator of this project Can we talk about Power? In collaboration with Suzanne, Michaela Zamloot edited the transcript of this interview.

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