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Neuroscience suggests that having power decreases empathy

We all know that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Some of the most powerful people on earth are the dictators on the African continent that allow genocide and starvation in their backyard while they feast on delicacies.

Their power, actions and decrees smack of madness.

And that’s just it. They may very well be mad, or at least brain damaged.

An article in The Atlantic reports the work of Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario. When he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.

Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley came to the same conclusion. In studies spanning two decades, he found that subjects under the influence of power acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

“In the behavioral research I’ve conducted over the past 20 years, I’ve uncovered a disturbing pattern: While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade,” writes Keltner.

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This is crazy: once we have gained power, we lose some of the qualities we needed to gain it in the first place.


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Keltner calls this phenomenon “the power paradox,” and says he has seen it play out in colleges, the U.S. Senate, pro sports teams, and professional workplaces. “In each I’ve observed that people rise on the basis of their good qualities, but their behavior grows increasingly worse as they move up the ladder.”

Wealth and status elicit the same behavior.

In one experiment, Keltner and Paul Piff of UC Irvine found that drivers of the least expensive vehicles always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians at a crosswalk, but those in luxury cars yielded only 54% of the time. He also mentions research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montréal which demonstrated that CEOs with MBAs are more likely than those without MBAs to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline.

“Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office. And people who’ve just moved into senior roles are particularly vulnerable to losing their virtues, my research and other studies indicate,” writes Keltner.

These behaviors hold dire consequences for countries and corporations alike.

The abuse of power tarnishes the reputations of leaders and it corrupts the behavior of those reporting to them. Abuse of power demoralizes everyone, in every sense of the word. When leaders are corrupt, the corruption spreads like a virus to everyone within their ambit.

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