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Eye off the Ball?

How Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis can be interpreted through the lens of Ian Robertson’s The Winner Effect

Writing: James Stanyer

Like many avid readers back at their family home right now, I have found myself reading more. In particular, books I once bought or started a number of years ago that I was too distracted to fully absorb. One of these books is ”The Winner Effect; The science of success and how to use it” by Ian Robertson. Jumping straight to the third chapter titled “The Enigma of Bill Clinton’s friend” in my boredish daze, I begin to read about the friendship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair during a series of global episodes in the late 1990s, as the author unearths the contrasting psyches and “decision making atlas” of both leaders. As Robertson develops this idea of individuals having different levels of a need for power and its intoxicating mental and physical effects, it made me think of how the current crisis of leadership and strategy in the UK can be linked to the effects of such power. Despite the current government achieving such a landslide in December’s election, how can the complacency, poor procurement and grand delusion we have witnessed be explained?

A good place to begin is how power influences the sense of control that an individual has. One has to observe the rhetoric that has been used continuously by the UK government since mid-March and its militant, defiant and brash undertones, where “suppression” and “defeat” are commonly used words.. Even now, as the UK has the highest death toll in Europe, the government labelled their approach as successful just last week (1). This is significant because I believe Robertson’s book can help us understand the psychology behind this better. In chapter three an experiment done at Stanford University by Nathanael Fast and Deborah Gruenfeld is cited where one group of volunteers were asked to think about a time when they held power over someone and the other had to think about a time when someone had power over them. When Fast and colleagues asked the volunteers to choose between throwing a dice themselves or someone else doing it for them, “the power primed volunteers were more likely to choose to throw the dice, showing that they somehow believed they could control the result, while the low power individuals were more likely to leave it to the tester to throw the die”. (2) This idea developed by Robertson of transient activation of power in people’s brains increasing one’s sense of control is very interesting to me. In a way, since the recent experience of election success, I would argue that the UK has been governed by individuals likely to be more “power primed” than usual. The victory enabled decision making, strategy and policy to become even more concentrated in a small group, with Dominic Cummings a key figure in the push to weaken the power of the treasury and reshape the civil service. Therefore, I think this indicates that the discourse surrounding the pandemic which stresses the “control” the government has over the virus, very much reflects with how power is structured within the UK government right now, with Cummings and his advisors retaining a key seat on the Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies (SAGE).

Beyond militant discourse as an indicator of a powerful, action-focused team in charge of the country, we can also look at the mistakes and missed opportunities as a sign of the effect such power has had on our leaders. Ana Guunote of University College London found that “power focuses attention so that people with even a small amount of power are less likely to be put off by distractors in their peripheral vision”. (3) Although this can be good for decision making and taking action, in the light of looming threats on the horizon, such as a pandemic, one could posit that less attention and foresight was given by our leaders. This is explained by Robertson as the shutting of the left side of the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for vigilance.

A lapse in vigilance can be seen on different occasions; Boris Johnson missed five COBRA meetings on Coronavirus back in February (4) and the equipment stockpiling recommendations from the test pandemic in 2016 were not followed through. Therefore it appears very much that despite the recent strong majority and political dominance that the conservatives have had in this country since 2010, this has failed to manifest in pragmatic, preventative preparation for a crisis such as this.

Now such a topic could also bring in other distractions this government has faced surrounding the EU and the deliverance of Brexit, but such is an issue for another article. Understanding the psychology at play in Boris Johnson’s decision making can also be made clearer when comparing it to Germany’s response. Managing to keep their death toll much lower than their European counterparts and being rigorous with testing early on, the reopening of civil society is in a much clearer position than in the UK with shops and football set to resume soon. Angela Merkel is in a coalition with the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) bloc and Social Democratic Party (SPD) and late 2019 polls suggested that a third of Germans want new elections before 2021 (5). Therefore, using Robertson’s approach, there is less likelihood of bluster, slogans and grandiose posturing by Merkel if her dopamine and frontal cortex is less hiked up.

To wrap things up I hope this can shed light on my own interpretation of current leadership in the UK that I have gathered from a chapter in Robertsons’ psycho-analytical book. It seems to me that planning for a crisis is a vital part of any government but has been demoted in recent years in the UK, giving way to the more instantly gratifying pursuit of electoral success and referenda. In the last five years the UK population has had two snap elections and an EU referendum, is it not cruelly ironic that in the midst of these events they have been ill prepared for a virus that does not discriminate between political opinions? Just as the situation continues to develop and the stark nature of the current reality hits, as it did to the Prime Minister himself, so too will the tone change, I hope, giving way to one that is more honest, realistic and pragmatic.

2. Robertson, Ian. The winner effect: How power affects your brain. A&C Black, 2012. pg 110

3. (Robertson, 2012) pg 117

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