Philanthropy Daily, Sep 13, 2017
Many people acquire power precisely by having a great capacity to be empathetic, or, at least, to be well-attuned to the emotional realities of others. But then, achieving that power seems to cause a loss of that very capability.
Let’s start with a little exercise. Treat your finger like a pen and write a letter E on your forehead.
Done? Now tell me, did you write the E with its points facing your right—as if you were reading it—or facing your left, so others can read it?
It may depend on how powerful you feel.
According to a 2006 study, if you are in a position of power, you are three times more likely to write the E the way that looks right to you as you write it, and that looks backwards to everybody else. This simple exercise is interesting, because it demands seeing yourself from the perspective of somebody else, from the vantage point of an observer. And the outcome is revealing, because it seems to show that powerful people have more difficulty than others putting themselves in other people’s place.
This fascinating article recently published at the Atlantic explains how, over the last two decades, researchers in both neuroscience and psychology have shown consistently that subjects with power lose a great degree of empathy.
It actually points to a paradox: many people acquire power precisely by having a great capacity to be empathetic, or, at least, to be well-attuned to the emotional realities of others. But then, achieving that power seems to cause a loss of that very capability. Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley, coined the term “empathy deficit” to refer to that erosion.
The degradation of empathy among the powerful is not purely psychological but biological as well.
Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario discovered that subjects in positions of power show much less of a neural process known as “mirroring”, which is believed to be critical for the development of empathy. “Mirroring” happens in subtle ways. For example, we tend to mimic, subconsciously, the facial expressions of others.
But there’s a hierarchical twist: we are most likely to mimic the facial expressions of those who we consider more powerful than us; we laugh when a powerful person laughs, and frown when they frown. Naturally, a powerful person has fewer opportunities to interact with those of yet higher status than she—and, thus, she has fewer opportunities to mimic others. This may at least partially explain the atrophying of her mirroring response...Share