“The Winner Effect” Conclusion

In the front half of our brains is the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex). Its job is to alert us to mistakes.

It also acts as the brain’s ‘conflict detector’. This means it notices potential contradictions which could lead to costly errors.  For example; you’re approaching a traffic light and notice it has been green for a while. Do you slow down, anticipating a colour change or keep driving at your current speed, maybe even accelerate to beat the possible change? These two opposing thoughts have to be quickly sorted.

The ACC signals the conflict (an ‘error’) and with the support of other areas of the brain, especially the frontal lobes, a decision is made.  When the brain works in a fairly co-ordinated way, we usually manage these contradictions and our behaviour is fairly consistent.

However, relationships often cause conflict. We find ourselves in situations of cognitive dissonance, where we feel distress as a result of wrestling with conflicting ideas.  What does our brain do to solve it? It ‘changes our mind’. The dorsal ACC (dACC) goes into hyperdrive to change our feelings about an experience, so we can feel more comfortable with it.

When a powerful person is exerting their power, they may see the other person’s discomfort and feel some cognitive dissonance. They certainly may have lost some empathy and be treating the other person as more of an ‘object’, however at some point the brain may detect conflict (e.g. “I’m nice, but I can see I’m causing you distress.”)  To resolve it, the dACC may respond with “I’m definitely nice, however he isn’t and he deserves to be treated like this.” The twist is the way we excuse our behaviour, so we will still be able to feel positive about ourselves.”

“This is the logic of cognitive dissonance – that strange need to keep the ego reassured that what is being done is all right and proper and above all consistent.’ (P.250) This is how group bullying can work.  A bully may ask someone to do something small, and seemingly innocent to the victim. Having done that one small thing, the associate may now be willing to do something more; a little less innocent. As conflict arises in the associate’s brain, the dACC reassures him/ her that everything going on is okay.

Interestingly “power makes bullies of people who feel inadequate in the role of boss.” Having power is stressful and in a high pressure environment, it can be difficult for a boss not to feel inadequate. A power driven person who lacks the confidence for their position and is feeling threatened by incompetence and inadequacy, may protect his/ her ego by aggressively venting on underlings.


Power Audits

We know a lot about ourselves as individuals; our weight, our blood pressure, our technical skills etc, but it’s time we learned about our relationship with power.  We need to take time to reflect on our own need for power; what sort of power we need; how we exercise the power we have and how it affects us. We also need to think about how others exert their power over us and the effect that has. As parents, partners and team members we need to consider the balance of power within our relationships. Children certainly need boundaries, but misuse of parental power can lead to helpless or frustrated, angry young people.

As voters, we need to think about the people we elect as leaders. A red flag is the use of a lot of “I” in their speech. While we talk a lot about leadership and power, we don’t talk a lot about how people become sick as a result of too little or too much power.

The greatest obstacle facing humanity in a world with declining resources, increasing climactic problems and weaponry “is the difficulty of curbing the toxic effects of power on the brains of the people who will make decisions and policies to deal with the challenges.”


For those of you in the dog training world, think about the word of the ‘experts’ – whether they be in clubs, online, in books, in shops or on TV.  ‘Experts’ may calmly tell you that it’s okay to do certain things to your dog and to use certain tools. They may seem calm and in control, and their explanations make sense. You respect them and the results they get, so you let them go right ahead and ‘work their magic’ on your dog or you do it yourself. If you start to feel concerned, perhaps your dACC will reassure you with ‘this isn’t really hurting my dog’ or ‘I love my dog and I would never do anything to hurt or scare him/ her’.

I’ve seen some quite intense force used by people who probably did genuinely love their dogs, yet somehow they missed seeing and hearing what others saw and heard.  Now I think I understand why.

Further reading

The Winner Effect  by Ian H. Robertson