Even the smallest dose of power can change a person. You’ve probably seen it. Someone gets a promotion or a bit of fame and then, suddenly, they’re a little less friendly to the people beneath them.
So here’s a question that may seem too simple: Why?
If you ask a psychologist, he or she may tell you that the powerful are simply too busy. They don’t have the time to fully attend to their less powerful counterparts.
But if you ask Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada and his colleagues Jeremy Hogeveen and Michael Inzlicht, they might give you another explanation: that power fundamentally changes how the brain operates.
Now with a new study there’s evidence to support that claim.
Obhi and his fellow researchers took a bunch of participants and randomly put them in the mindset of feeling either powerful or powerless. The powerless group was asked to write a diary entry about a time they depended on others for help. The powerful group wrote entries about times they were calling the shots, and they knew it. (There was also a control group, neither powerful or powerless, who wrote about something else entirely.)
Then everybody watched a simple video. In it, an anonymous hand squeezes a rubber ball a handful of times—sort of monotonous.
But while the video ran, Obhi’s team tracked the participants’ brains, looking at a special region called the mirror system.
The mirror system is important because it contains neurons that become active both when you squeeze a rubber ball and when you watch a stranger squeeze a rubber ball. It is the same thing with picking up a cup of coffee, hitting a baseball, or flying a kite. Whether the stranger does it, or you do it, your mirror system activates either way.
In this small way, the mirror system places you inside a stranger’s head. Furthermore because our actions are linked to deeper thoughts like beliefs and intentions, you can also begin to understand the motivations another person has for squeezing a rubber ball, to pick an example.
Understanding what another person wants—and perhaps more importantly, doesn’t want—for him or herself is actually a key component of developing empathy.
Obhi’s team wanted to see if bestowing a person with a feeling of power or powerlessness would change how the mirror system responded to a stranger performing a simple action.
The researchers found that the mirror system—and by extension, one’s ability to connect with others—was tuned down by power.
“What we’re finding is power diminishes all varieties of empathy,” says Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley not involved in the new study. He says these results fit a trend within psychological research, but add the hint of some possible biological machinery behind the phenomenon.
Dacher Keltner says understanding that process is absolutely vital.
“Whether you’re with a team at work [or] your family dinner, all of that hinges on how we adapt our behaviors to the behaviors of other people. And power takes a bite out of that ability, which is too bad.”
The good news, he says, is that there’s an emerging field of research that suggests powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back toward their former kindness.