Sunday, July 27, 2014

Empathy Makes You Feel Subordinate

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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

I think people who are into power do have a lot of empathy but of the strategic than mushy kind.
To gain power, you must be able to manipulate others, and to do this, you have to understand others..

It's like Michael Corleone explains in GODFATHER II that his father taught him to see things as his enemies do.
So, empathize but don't sympathize, esp with potential rivals.

Also, I think a lot of poor people lack both sympathy and empathy. They just see themselves as poor helpless victims and blame the white man for everything.
And a lot of poor Muslims just place the blame on others.

The powerless only feel self-pity.

The well-to-do empathize and sympathize to a degree.

The powerful empathize but don't sympathize(though they pretend to, as with Bill Clinton's 'I feel your pain' shtick.)

Obama got to where he did because he learned about white psychology, made easier by the fact he was raised by whites. He understood which buttons to push to make whites wet their pants over him.
Oprah understands the same shtick.

David Foster said...

"among full-time employees of a public university, those who were higher in social class (as determined by level of education) were less able to accurately identify emotions in photographs of human faces than were co-workers who were lower in social class."

I am not remotely convinced that the psychological characteristics of those who have a higher level of educational credentials and who are employed by universities are equivalent than those who have succeeded as executives in the private sector.

David Foster said...

This post reminds me of a woman named Vera Atkins, who during WWII was an intelligence officer in the British organization called Special Operations Executive, which sent agents into occupied Europe. Ms Atkins was heavily involved in the selection and briefing of these agents (many of them women) for their missions, and was frequently the last person the agents spoke to before they left. Many of them did not return.

Someone once asked Ms Atkins how she Felt about what she was doing. Her reply was something like, "We can feel when the war is over."

True to her word, when the was *was* over, she took the lead in tracking down what had become of the various agents.

The reality is that in the midst of action, one *must* keep one's emotions under control if one wants to achieve a successful outcome.

Jeff Dorsai said...

induced to experience feelings of power ???? how is that even possible and wouldn't that power be unearned and undeserved and wouldn't that effect the emotions of the subjects ... BS study ...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for uniformly excellent comments...

Ares Olympus said...

Simon Baron-Cohen has a Empathizing–systemizing theory that sees two dominant ways of seeing the world, with women more generally empathizing and men more generally systemizing.

I image people high on either end might feel superior within their own domains of power, and in fact people who "feel inferior" might in fact gravitate towards whichever end gives them the most satisfaction, but its also a mask to avoid or hide where they really feel powerless.

I agree at a public level empathy can have a sort of manipulative quality, but on the other hand, you can imagine empathetic people can help bring together opposites and find common ground.

The real corruption of empathy from my (more systemizing POV), is that it is subjective and easy to be biased. Like the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd pays attention to the one lost sheep while neglecting the needs of the 99 other sheep. Similarly one child might learn to be the problem child to get attention, while the other children learn to be self-sufficient, because they can never compete with the problem child for attention. So empathy alone can't see what is too much, or see who is neglected because their needs are more subtle.

I guess my point comes out more as the "Drama triangle", where people learn different ways of relating that are slightly dishonest but work, and then get caught in the roles limitations later:

I remember reading Scott Peck's experience with leadership, and trying to be everyone's friend, and eventually learning his mushy boundaries were making those under him less secure, and more rebellious, until he learned he had to set down standards and keep by them to help his workers.

With time I've come to accept that projection is a big part of the problem in relating in general, and expressions of any sort of authority, so when people "blame" leaders for lacking empathy, really, they are projecting something of themselves.

So if "empathy" to you means accepting other people's perceptions as objective fact (rather than subjective inner facts), you're going to get into trouble and not know how to lead.

So the real question to me is weather "strong empathy" exists to compliment "weak empathy", or maybe we could say mature and immature empathy? I don't know.

David Foster said...

Also, re the methodology of the first cited study: It is unlikely that one will achieve significant power in business, and probably even in politics, without considerable emotional intelligence (at least "empathy" if not "sympathy"). This is not true of academic achievement/credentials, assumed to be a proxy for power...there is no reason to believe that people with a PhD have more emotional intelligence than those with MS degrees, quite possibly the opposite.