Recently on The Highly Sensitive Person Podcast, Dr. Amy Banks, former psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School, stated that we receive a hit of dopamine when we feel we have power over someone.

“Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional response, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.”  – Psychology Today

Having power over someone could be as simple as leaving a negative comment on social media or as complex as establishing a hierarchy within a family. The commenter or family member feels a small sense of reward or motivation (dopamine) each time their actions make someone else feel under their power.

That was an aha! moment for me. No wonder some people leave ugly remarks. No wonder my kids sometimes put each other down.

I am affected if someone merely disagrees with me, let alone blatantly insults me in public. Being the instigator of that kind of interaction, seems harsh and problematic to me. I know not all sensitive people run from conflict or debate, but do our biologically sensitive nervous systems and/or our relationship induced hyper-vigilance make us more likely to be the underling?

HSPs not looking for power?

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) often prefer creativity, counseling and collaboration more than competition and winning. Conflict is stimulating internally and externally. These are my own thoughts, backed by years of personal experience, research and Dr. Elain Aron’s suggestion in “The Highly Sensitive Person” that HSPs are more Royal Advisors than Warrior Kings.

Michelle Wirth and her colleagues at the University of Michigan (2006) did an experiment where individuals were randomly allowed to win or lose a reaction time competition. Those with high power needs had more of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood when they were on the losing team. Those with lower power needs had an even more interesting response. When they WON they had more cortisol in their system. Winning was stressful to them. Suggesting some people really do have more of a “killer instinct”.

white catOne reason for the higher levels of stress found in people who “won” in the experiment is a fear of greater scrutiny. People in power are under scrutiny from more levels of people including subordinates and bosses. HSPs don’t like to be scrutinized.

Power gap

Hierarchy and status exist forefront in the minds of people who live in a society where the financial gap between those with power and those without power is greatest. Mental illness is higher in these cultures as well. It makes sense that we would consciously keep track of and worry about our status more if we have significantly less power than those on top. We live under constant threat of losing more of our status and belonging.

One general rule is that when we have no control over stimulation, it is more upsetting, even more so if we feel we are someone’s victim. — Dr. Elaine N. Aron, “The Highly Sensitive Person”

If we keenly feel stimulation both from the outside world and from within our own bodies (tension, jitters, butterflies), this kind of status stress hits us hard.

Truthfully, all of us strive for power. It is part of our human makeup. The problem is whether we like a lot of power or are content with less, the battle for position in the world is brutal. If we don’t want to fight, our tender hearts take a beating.

Unhealthy ways of dealing with low power

Dominance hierarchies within humans and other species – and the power and powerlessness that go with them – are a particularly potent element of social relationships, and have immense effects on cognitive and emotional function. Macaques low in a dominance hierarchy, for instance, are much more likely to self-administer cocaine due to the fact that low social power has led to depleted dopamine in their reward networks…— Ian H. Robertson, How Power Affects the Brain

Those of us on the low-end of the totem pole, may substitute status with other dopamine raisers like risky behavior, drugs, alcohol or eating unhealthy foods.

Those who suffer from social anxiety are more likely to engage in alcohol or drug abuse. It  numbs them to the pain of not fitting in or lowers their inhibitions so they can act more social so they can fit in.

Healthy ways to create dopamine

There are many other ways to increase our dopamine production and consumption. Some include: exercise, crossing off items on a to do list, meditation, creating something or listening to music.

Per Dr. Amy Banks, we also receive feel-good chemicals in our brain when we connect with someone. So instead of powering over someone to get our hit of dopamine, we can reach out to them with genuine care and interest.

To many, connection and the vulnerability it entails, is the scariest and most painful endeavor. Perhaps this is why they choose to power over someone?

How does your heart feel? Do you think people grab for power more than collaboration? How do you increase your dopamine? 

Photo by Luke Tanis on Unsplash

Photo by Jeb Buchman on Unsplash


Yes, it’s that time again. If you’re doing your holiday shopping early, good for you! Don’t forget The Quiet Rise book for the introverts in your life. Non-introverts love it too. It’s the perfect guide for creating healthy interdependent relationships. . Click the image to purchase.