Nick Stewart, Auckland Law School


On 7 February 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Russia’s amassing of military troops near Ukraine. Macron described Putin as overly focused on history dating back to the Cold War and said he was a different person to when the pair last met three years earlier. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine, prompting many more to speculate about Putin’s mental state, such as former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said Putin has shifted from calculated to an “erratic man”. What could have caused such a change in Putin, president of Russia between 1999-2008 and since 2012? This article will explore how power can affect someone psychologically and physiologically and consider whether this may explain the documented shifts in Putin’s behaviour.

The Research

Well documented research shows power can change the way people behave and think in many different ways. The first group of changes relate to how powerful people think. Studies have shown they tend to think in more abstract and simplified terms, focusing on central rather than peripheral information. They tend to minimise any barriers they perceive to achieving their goals, making them optimistic about their decisions. They tend to think more about their own internal state and perspective rather than others’ perspectives.

Secondly, powerful people tend to process emotions differently. Similarly to the optimism in achieving ones goals, powerful people are more likely to experience more positive emotions. They are less likely to show empathy and feel distress in response to others’ suffering.

The third area where changes have been researched is in behaviour. Those in power are more likely to take initiative and take the first step, for example in negotiations. Powerful people feel less constrained by social norms and consequently are more likely to violate them.

In addition to this psychological research, there is also physiological research on the effects of power. One study looked at mirroring, a phenomenon where parts of the brain are activated when watching another person carry out a task. Mirroring is often seen as an indicator of empathy, an ability to understand how someone else is feeling. The study found that those primed to think about a situation where they held power had less mirrored neural activation in their brain than those thinking about situations where they were powerless.

Other studies have found that holding power can activate reward networks in the brain, increasing dopamine levels. Reward networks are relevant to addiction, providing support to the saying that power is addictive.

Research has also shown that the vagus nerve, associated with compassion, gratitude and appreciation, fires less in powerful people. This reduced functioning could explain the reduced empathy discussed above.

Putin and Power

It can readily be seen that some of the above research could apply to Putin. His invasion of Ukraine shows a flagrant disregard for international law and the rules-based system that the modern world relies on. Similarly, powerful people more readily break social norms to pursue their own goals. Powerful people are also more likely to minimise any impediments to achieving success. This hubris undoubtedly contributed to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Putin’s invasion also shows a lack of empathy for the people of Ukraine, who have suffered immensely, and the people of Russia, affected by the sanctions and punished for protesting against the invasion. This lack of empathy and compassion also lines up with the research described above.

Putin could be addicted to his power. His election in 2012 was plagued with protests and allegations of election fraud. In 2021 he passed a constitutional amendment increasing the maximum number of terms someone can be president. Under his presidency, political opponents have been routinely repressed and jailed, stifling a free and fair democracy in Russia. All this shows Putin’s obsession with his power and his attempts to gradually cement it.


While we cannot know Putin’s mental state, his egregious actions in Ukraine require an explanation. Strengthening Russia’s geopolitical position and benefitting Russia’s oligarchs’ financial positions were undoubtedly factors leading to Putin’s decision, however his addiction to his power, and the way it may have changed him, likely also contributed.