The historian Henry Adams described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” This may sound like hyperbole, but it has been borne out by years of lab and field experiments. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, has been studying the influence of power on individuals. He puts people in positions of power relative to each other in different settings. He has consistently found that power, over time, makes one more impulsive, more reckless and less able to see things from others’ points of view. It also leads one to be rude, more likely to cheat on one’s spouse, less attentive to other people, and less interested in the experiences of others.
Does that sound familiar? It turns out that power actually gives you brain damage.
This even shows up in brain scans. Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, recently examined the brain patterns of the powerful and the not so powerful in a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine. He found that those with power are impaired in a specific neural process — mirroring — that leads to empathy.
I’m a parent, and one thing you find very consistently with kids is that they reciprocate what you do. You smile, they smile. You laugh, they laugh. Among the powerful in various settings, their impulse to reflect what they are being shown emotionally has been numbed. They similarly lose the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes.
Lord David Owen and Jonathan Davidson called it the “hubris syndrome” — a disorder of the possession of power held over years and with minimal constraint on the leader. Its clinical features include contempt for others, loss of reality, recklessness and displays of incompetence. Lack of empathy is part of the package.
Perhaps most distressing is that in lab settings the powerful can’t address this shortcoming even if told to try. Subjects in one study were told that their mirroring impulse was the issue and to make a conscious effort to relate to the experiences of others. They still couldn’t do it. Effort and awareness made no difference in their abilities.
Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has argued that this change in attitude is adaptive and meant to aid efficiency. If you become powerful, you have less need to read other people because you have command of resources. The need to demonstrate empathy is behind you.
One behavior that did help some people relate to others was to recall a time when they felt powerless.