Though the study of empathy is not new, neuroscientists are only beginning to understand how exactly it works, and what conditions affect our ability to build the bridges of empathy that connect us with others.
A recent NPR story by Chris Benderev follows some leading neuroscience researchers who’ve recently proven what psychologists have been saying for years—that having a sense of power decreases our ability to connect with others. Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada is one of these researchers. He’s been studying the “mirror system”–the part of the brain that helps us get inside someone else’s head:
“When I watch somebody picking up a cup of coffee, the mirror system activates the representations in my brain that would be active if I was picking up a cup of coffee,” he explains. “And because those representations are connected in my brain to the intentions that would normally activate them, you can get activation of the intention. So you can figure out, hey, this person wants to drink coffee.”
The mirror system is thought to be the chemical fountain of our empathy—when we see someone doing something, we recognize what they are doing and connect it to our own experience.
In a recent study, Dr. Obhi’s team looked at how the mirror system is affected by power. Participants were split randomly into two groups and asked to either reflect on an experience of powerlessness, or on a time when they felt powerful and had authority over others. Then subjects were abruptly interrupted and shown a video of someone holding and squeezing a rubber ball. As the participants watched the video, the researchers tracked the activity in their mirror systems with electrodes.
They found that the mirror systems of people in the ‘powerless’ group were sending strong signals. As they watched the ball being squeezed, their brains were mirroring the sensation of squeezing a ball.
The people in the ‘powerful’ group, on the other hand, were less able to connect with the video. Their mirror systems were sending very weak signals. This provides a scientific explanation for what happens when power—even a tiny bit of power—goes to someone’s head.
“What we’re finding is that power diminishes all varieties of empathy,” says University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Dacher Keltner. “Whether you’re with your team at work or you’re having a family dinner, [empathy] 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.”
Keltner goes on to say that people in positions of power seem to be able to train themselves out of this behavior—good news for those who want to lead with their heads, but also keep their hearts.
What do these findings mean to you? Can you think of powerful people who are exceptions to the diminished-empathy rule?