The Royal Society of Medicine Daedalus Trust

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The Royal Society of Medicine

Daedalus Trust

The intoxication of power: from neurosciences to hubris in healthcare and
public life, 9

October, 2012

Notes from Session 2:

Hubris and Neuroscience

haired by Dr Peter Garrard, Reader in Neurology, St

University of London

From intoxication to addiction: Neurobiological substrates for hubris?

Professor Paul Fletcher

Bernard Wolfe Professor of Health Neuroscience, University of Cambridge

Professor Fletcher indicated that Owen and Davidson’s pap

together with Russell’s
thoughtful response to it

had led him to view some of the issues associated with
intoxication from a phenomenological perspective that was new to him. He was glad that
the papers had avoided falling into the error of pseudo
science in raising issues of impaired
risk appraisal and
of a developing inability to foresee undesirable outcomes.
But he also
considered it highly unlikely that it would prove possible to link phenomena associated with
such issues to specific areas of the brain or to particular neurotransmitters.

He referred
to the work of Volkow

et al

in describing addiction in terms of:

A compulsion to seek specific sources of gratification

A loss of personal control [choice]

An associated emergence of feelings of guilt

The transition from intoxication to add
iction is associ
ated with a pre
occupation with the

of withdrawal from the source of addiction

(as opposed to the satisfaction
of a perceived need that it w

felt to provide). This transition involves a move
pulsivity to
pulsivity whi
ch is, in turn, associated with anxiety and stress; from
positive to negative reinforcement and from goal
directed to habitual behaviours.

Such developing patterns of behaviour suggest that, “under the right conditions a human
being may be as sophisticated

as a rat”. Stages in progression from, say, binge, through
intoxication, to addiction follow familiar patterns of neurotransmission and neuroplasticity.


proposed that consideration might be given to two, separate syndromes

hubris and

which in some circumstances might share some of Owen and
Davidson’s key indicators of a possible liability to hubris syndrome. Such common features
might include, for example:

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A narrowing of a subject’s focus of attention

A tendency to ignore
advice and the lessons of experience

In hubris syndrome it is suggested that there is a stimulus towards specific

goal directed
which is not the case with addiction. Similarly there is, in hubris syndrome, at
least the appearance of moral rectit
ude. In cases of addiction, self
loathing is more likely to
be the case. Overlap would appear to be more likely in cases of apparent hubris syndrome
and states of intoxication than in those of addiction. For example:

Areas of Behaviour in Common


Poor Decision making


Delusions of grandeur Impaired Risk Management

Low self esteem

The existence of [organisational] silos and various classificatory systems help us to make
predictions [by providing us with sets of assumptions about the world in which we have to
function]. We must, therefore, be sensitive to [sometimes] subtle environmental
regularities. Prediction error is a key signal in

we make mistakes and we l
from them. For any given experience, we are able to differentiate between the prediction of
what we expect and the experience of what we get:


Prior knowledge


Current input

What tends to hap
pen in circumstances where there are high levels of uncertainty is that we
overemphasise the significance of prior knowledge. This leads us to develop tendencies to

blinkered, incorrigible and narrow

Further investigation of these tendenci
es might lead to a conclusion that there are indeed
possible neurobiological substrates for hubris.

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The biology of exuberance in the financial markets

Dr John Coates

search Fellow in Cognitive and B
ehavioural Neuros
cience, University of Cambridge

Dr Coates has experienced the life of a financial trader and has had the opportunity to study
behaviours on the trading floor from the perspective of a neuroscientist. He asked the
audience to note that humans have only one biology and that we take it with

us wherever
we go, whatever we do. In consequence of this basic fact, the biology of those who

in financial risk taking shares a common biological signature with those in positions of
enhanced risk

they happen to be
, for example,

in politic
s, athletics or the military
He also observed that all “financial blow
ups” come at the end of an above average winning

“you are on a high and with an increased appetite for risk”.

But neither is there any
evidence for the phenomenon of the “hot


, he stated, is not a cognitive

and has nothing to do with issues such as
Nor does it have anything to do with money.

does have a great deal to do with
issues of perceived power. (cf. Tom Wolfe’s

references to ‘Masters
of the U

in the
“Bonfire of the Vanities”

The life experience of a young and successful Wall Street trader may involve a rapid shift
expectation that, with l
uck, he might be able to pay off
his student loan within
three years and his mo
rtgage in ten, to one where the ownership of a Lear Jet and a house in
the Hamptons may be on the cards within the same or an even

timescale. Such shifts
in perspective are not all that unusual

in the world of the financial trader

The spectrum of
research into the biological concomitants of such shifts must include both
field and laboratory elements
, but

needs to begin with work undertaken in the field.

It has

been Dr C
tes’ good fortune to be able to undertake such field
based research


course of which he
explored the possibility of there being
a neuroendocrinological
basis for irrational exuberance on the part of financial traders. For example, he considered
the levels of testosterone and dopamine, measured at regular intervals over

the course of
several trading periods, in a number of traders. He had already noted that irrational
exuberance seems to be less evident in women than in men and that traders appear to
experience a “bigger hit” when the rewards are uncertain. In finance, h
e observed, the
potential rewards are so huge that it is
possible that dopamine
may prove to be

As a consequence of the 2007/2008 banking crisis, bankers, observed Dr Coates, have lost
confidence in the theories of economics and business manageme
nt. In the past the
management of financial risk had
come to
be based to a great extent upon the traders’
capacity for sensing and intuition. This reliance

on feelings

has been steadily supplanted by
computer based statistical models and algorithms. Traders can no longer depend on their
ability to

sense the shifting risk preferences of individual colleagues and competitors. The
statistical models and algorithms employed

by economists and analysts do not use the same
language as those on the trading floor. Instead they employ models based
, for example,

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Prisoners’ Dilemma and other tools derived from games theory. To understand the
processes that are employed on the tra
ding floor we must start with the language, the
behaviours of the traders themselves.

The financial world provides an incredible volume of data related to stress in the workplace.
For example, we have access to hard data relating to the profit and losses a
ssociated with
thousands upon thousands of individual “deals”. We have access to quantifiable data
concerning the levels of uncertainty faced by traders derived from variances in the P&L and
flexibilities in the derivatives market. This provides a telling
background to the data derived
from the biology of individual traders.

Dr Coates suggested that in attempting to come to terms
might lie

financial blow
ups of the recent past we have been using
inappropriate or even
the wrong
models. E
conomics assumes that decision
making is fundamentally rational. It ignores the
role of the body, being dependent upon a perception of mind
body dualism that has proved
remarkably and unhelpfully tenacious in the face of the evidence of their inseparabilit
Economic and statistical models leave no room for the role of the body in the making of
decisions even though its exclusion is not supported by the evidence.

To illustrate this point, Dr Coates suggested that the primary function of the brain is to
nise and to manage movement (trees don’t need brains). For example, the learning that
enables us to leave our cities and take to the ski slopes is a triumphant illustration of the
brain’s capacity to learn and manage bodily movement in new and unnatural si
World class athletics

such as
demonstrated in London during the summer of 2012

might be said to represent the pantheon of human develop
ment. The role of the endocrine

system is

ensure that mind and body and all
their sub
elements wor
k in perfect
harmony, particularly in times of crisis, in order to ensure an appropriate unity of response.

This can be observed, for example, in the “winner effect”.

Animals that win in competition with their peers are more likely to win next time. In s
competitions, winning males have increased levels of testosterone while that of their losing
competitors is reduced. Similarly, in male tennis players it has been observed that the
winner of the first set has a 60% chance of winning the second. The sam
e effect has not
been observed amongst women players.

The question is raised, therefore, as to

such effects
may also
apply in the
context of

Dr Coates’ research suggests that when traders make higher than expected profits in the
morning t
hey have raised levels of testosterone and go on to make higher profits in the

However, he also noted that the winner effect in animals can become pathological, leading
to increased levels of risk taking, a tendency to pick more fights, to over

territory and to neglect family etc.

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Dr Coates concluded that, against this background, the compensation and reward systems of
the banks would appear to be designed in exactly the wrong way

rewarding the very
behaviours that are increasingly

dangerous to the point of putting their very survival at risk.

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emotional brain and decision making

Professor G
uy Claxton

Professor of
earning Sciences and Co
Director, Centre for Real World Learning,
University of Winchester

Professor Claxton

hubris as a disorder of intelligence and, more specifically as a
particular form of stupidity, representing a breakdown i
n what are normally regarded

regulating systems. He suggested that there are both old and new views of intelligence.
In the old view intelligence is seen as part of an essentially
antagonistic process in which
reason “trumps” emotion, impulse and intuition. The new view, in contrast, suggests that
intelligence involves several complimentary systems (cf. “The Righteo
us Mind”, Jonathan

Such systems manifest themselves at various levels of behaviour. Thus, for example:


impulsive; rapid


analytical; evaluative; conscious; deliberate


contemplative; reflective


Discursive; debate; public

Stupidity is a consequence of the fact that each system is capable of error and/or
misapplication. Intelligence requires appropriate timing and prioritising.

Professor Claxton illustrated these suggestions with illustrations drawn from, “A Midsumme
Night’s Dream” (Puck’s girdle around the earth); Wittgenstein and from Da
references to the Iowa Gambling T
est. He also suggested that common measures of
intelligence are framed in the way that they are as a consequence of their partial nature.


tests, for example, do not correlate with the complexity of the real world; they predict
numbers of [winning] arguments rather than their quality; they tell us nothing about moral
reasoning. Similarly, academic grades do not provide accurate predictors of

life performance
while ethical books are those most likely to be stolen from university libraries.


exist of ways in which our visual perceptions may be tricked or
confused (Professor Claxton proffered one striking
illustration by way of

evidence exists to suggest that

personal decision making (such as the
purchase of a house) tends to benefit from


of distractions from rational

distraction being particularly beneficial when the number


exceeds an individual’s capacity for conscious analysis. Similarly it has been demonstrated
that techniques such as ‘brain storming’, developed and applied with the objective of
improving the quality of decision making, have merely co
ntributed to the development of a
capacity to generate large numbers of poor quality decisions.

Returning to the theme of differential levels of decision making behaviour (cope, check, mull
and chat) Professor Claxton suggested that each mode can contribu
te to a feeling of
“rightness” (one in which
particular course of action or solution

feels right

). However
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such feelings of rightness may become generalised to the dangerous position at which “this
feels right”, is experienced as, “

feel right”. This
shift in perspective opens the door, for
example, to hubris where contradictory feelings are concealed, denied or dismissed as
possible bases for alternative decisions.

Professor Claxton concluded with the suggestion that solutions to the very re
al problems
arising from such inappropriate generalisations might be found in any or all of the
gical, social or educational fields.

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Lord John Alderdi
ce, Psychoanalyst and, former


Ireland Assembly

Alderdice noted that each presentation had suggested, though in quite
different ways, that the power to make decisions involves excitement to which
decision makers respond with feelings that may have nothing to do with rationality
or logic. Thus, Professor

Fletcher had suggested that the intoxication of power might
be mediated not only by what we “take in” but by “what is already there”. Dr Coates
had demonstrated that thinking about the taking of risky decisions involves not
simply a conscious, rational pr
ocess but one that is dependent upon a number of
biological factors that also have nothing to do with rationality or logic. Then
Professor Claxton had reminded us of the ways in which intelligent people can be
(and are) drawn to do stupid things.

Lord Alde
rdice went on to re
mind the audience that James McG
regor had advised us
that if we are to understand the behaviour of leaders, we must develop our

understanding of the nature of the relationship between leaders and those who are
led. Jeremy Paxton, in his
recent book, “The Political Animal”, suggests
much of
politics is concerned with the creation of illusion. A validated CV is not much help in
getting you elected. As a would
be leader you need to be able to provide electors
with a

fantasy of the poss

in which they can believe.

Being grounded in reality, of itself provides an insufficient platform for political
success. People need to believe that you can deliver. In consequence, you are
unlikely to be elected unless you are able to demonstrate s
ome at least of Owen and
Davidson’s fourteen indicators of hubris syndrome. So perhaps the risk of hubris is
an inherent aspect of the role of the leader.

Hubris occurs when fantasy comes into sharp contact with reality.

Leaders do not remain in positions
of leadership for so long as they are capable of
leading but for so long as people believe that they can deliver in terms of the
fantasies that they have created.