Happily for my thesis, recent scientific research has shown that people who gain power in the world, who succeed in the arena, who are effective at competing… lack empathy.
You cannot compete effectively if you are attuned to the pain you want to inflict on your opponent.
The studies suggest that, with power comes an uncaring attitude toward those who are lower on the status hierarchy. The moral of the story sounds suspiciously like Lord Acton’s: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
After all, the study could have emphasized competitive advantage, success, authority or responsibility.
Be that as it may, in today’s New York Times, Michael Inzlicht and Sukvinder Obhi write:
Studies have repeatedly shown that participants who are in high positions of power (or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful) are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people, compared to participants who are powerless (or are made to feel so).
As I have often emphasized, empathy is about feeling someone else’s feelings. The authors explain:
Our brains appear to be able to intimately resonate with others’ actions, and this process may allow us not only to understand what they are doing, but also, in some sense, to experience it ourselves — i.e., to empathize.
They report on the results of their study:
We found that for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of power, their brains showed virtually no resonance with the actions of others; conversely, for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of powerlessness, their brains resonated quite a bit. In short, the brains of powerful people did not mirror the actions of other people. And when we analyzed the text of the participants’ essays, using established techniques for coding and measuring themes, we found that the more power that people expressed, the less their brains resonated. Power, it appears, changes how the brain itself responds to others.
But then, it would also follow that if you induce people to feel more empathy they will end up feeling weaker, more subordinate and more powerless.
Would that be therapeutic?
Still, the question that needs to be asked is this: If a man builds a large business that gives jobs to thousands of people does he also need to feel empathy? Surely, he needs to care about the people who work for him, but does that entail feeling sorry for them or does it entail providing good work conditions and job security?
The researchers are optimistic that they can teach powerful people to feel empathy, but doesn’t that really mean that the culture will try to make billionaires feel so guilty about their fortune that they will give it away to charity? Some of those charities will do God’s work, but many of them will dedicate themselves to undermining free enterprise… in the name of empathy.