Is Rob Ford Addicted to Power?

If power is Ford’s vice, then it’s no wonder he’s unwilling to step down from his post. That’s like asking a heroin addict to stop cold turkey.

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Nov 19 2013, 3:25pm
Photo via Flickr/CC. 

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s loud conservatism and bigoted comments have occupied media outlets since his days in City Hall, but his recent crack-smoking antics and violent outbursts raise the question: What happened to Rob Ford?

Ian Robertson, a neuropsychologist and the author of The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure, says Ford’s behavior may be a neurological side effect of his role in leadership.

“In general success and power both have strong drug-like effects,” Robertson says, “and they can produce the distortions in behavior that mind altering drugs do.” According to Robertson’s research, even those of us with the most moderate of appetites for power can fall prey to power addiction. His research rests on Harvard Psychologist David Mcclelland’s theory that power is one of three fundamental motivators of human behavior.

Being motivated by power isn’t a bad thing necessarily, Robertson says. It’s actually natural. However, an excessive drive for power can lead to dangerous behavior. When a person motivated by power wins an election or feels victorious they receive a surge of testosterone, which in turn stimulates the brain’s reward network and the release of dopamine. The reward network reinforces our achievements and satisfaction: a pay raise, an earned compliment, a bump of cocaine, or a sexual encounter. After a success, the body is awash in an addictively good feeling.

For average Joe, success and the subsequent release of these hormones and neurotransmitters can be a good thing. Joe’s boss notices Joe’s hard work, so Joe gets a promotion. Joe then feels confident and empowered, which leads him to make bold, smart decisions at work. “But, in big quantities it can distort your thinking,” adds Robertson. “You’ll find it difficult to conceive of risk or danger, or any down side. All you can see is future rewards.”

In a Rob Ford situation too much success can look something like this: A charismatic politician campaigns on helping the middle-income taxpayer. He works his way through the ranks of City Hall, achieving success after success for 10 years. All those years he’s been getting what amounts to an IV-drip of testosterone and dopamine. What makes power addictive is that gradually the body needs more and more to achieve the same effect; the body develops a tolerance. To get that craved feeling of power Ford needs a next level achievement—like winning the mayoral election. But not just once. He needs to keep achieving these mayoral-election type victories in order to keep feeling powerful.

What’s worse is that excessive floods of dopamine and testosterone can cloud a person’s judgment and significantly alter their behavior. Overproduction of the good stuff means underproduction of noradrenaline, the hormone that keeps us vigilant and on our toes. This could account for why Ford twice allowed himself to be videotaped under the influence. His guard may have been chemically lowered. Other negative side effects of excessive testosterone and dopamine include intense egocentrism, propensity for hypocrisy, seeing people as objects, and a lack of empathy. “You can get an acquired narcissism, because of the intense egocentricity and the tendency to want to see yourself as uniquely important to an institution,” says Robertson.

If power is Ford’s vice, then it’s no wonder he’s unwilling to step down from his post. That’s like asking a heroin addict to stop cold turkey. It also explains why he one day hopes to be Prime Minister, the ultimate high. To reign in Ford’s erratic behavior, Toronto’s City Council may have to take him down gradually or risk some nasty withdrawal symptoms.

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