“If power were a drug, it would come with a long list of side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can alienate,” wrote the journalist Jerry Useem. Two centuries earlier, the historian Henry Adams said that power is “A kind of tumor that ends by killing the sympathy of the victim.” He was not wrong.
The effects of power on people can be devastating. Many people in positions of power end up showing extreme behavior and making decisions that are detrimental to those under their command or have to submit to their rules in some way. They are often accused of failing to understand the views of those without authority and being insensitive to their needs.
The side effects of power
Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California who has spent years studying the effects of power, found that “People with a higher sense of power experienced less distress and less compassion and exhibited greater autonomous emotional regulation when faced with another person’s suffering.”
He found that powerful people can end up acting as if they have suffered a traumatic brain injury; that is, they became more impulsive, less aware of risks and, what is even worse, they lost the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand other perspectives. Keltner called it the “paradox of power”; that is, when we have power, we lose some of the capabilities that helped us achieve it.
A couple of years earlier, Adam Galinsky conducted a very curious experiment in which he asked participants to draw the letter “E” on their foreheads so that others could see it, a task that required the person to put himself in the place of the observer. Interestingly, the most powerful people were three times more likely to draw the “E” the correct way towards themselves and the other way around for the others.
In other experiments he found that the most powerful people were also more likely to think that the ideas of the others coincide with their own. Instead, they have a harder time identifying what others are feeling or guessing how others might interpret their comments. Galinsky showed the participants 24 images of faces expressing different emotions: happiness, fear, anger or sadness. The powerful people made more mistakes in judging the emotional expressions of the others.
A more recent study by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, found that these behavioral changes have a neurological basis. Typically, mirror neurons are activated in our brain when we see a person perform an action. In fact, the tendency to mirror the behavior of others is a subtle form of mimicry that occurs without realizing it.
When we see someone performing an action, the part of the brain that we would use to make those same movements is activated. In his experiment, Obhi asked people to watch a video of someone squeezing a rubber ball. In powerless people, that reflex worked just fine: The neural pathways they would use to squeeze the ball fired hard. But in the case of powerful people, there was a reduction of the reflex, as if they were anesthetized.
In a later study, Obhi asked participants to try to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response to others. However, there were no differences. Powerful people could not increase their level of empathy and put themselves in the shoes of others.
Perhaps the worst thing is that the people who participated in these experiments had been manipulated to make them feel powerful. Therefore, if a fleeting experience of power can generate such drastic changes in brain function, it is likely that years of power will end up “stunning” the areas linked to empathy, compassion and understanding of what is different.
Why does power produce an empathy deficit?
The loss of empathy and distancing from other perspectives is usually not a conscious decision but rather a “side effect” of power. One of the main problems is that powerful people stop imitating others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing up when others tense up does not only imply connecting with the others, but rather it is a strategy that helps us experience their same feelings, which helps us understand their origin. However, Keltner found that powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others” and suffer from a genuine “empathy deficit.”
Why is this happening?
It is possible that limiting this tendency to put ourselves in the place of others is a way to focus attention on the most important tasks among that multitude of responsibilities that usually accompany power. That is, the cognitive system of powerful people could be overwhelmed by obligations and readjust to optimize their resources. In practice, your brain readjusts itself to filter out the peripheral information it deems most inconsequential in order to function more efficiently.
Another explanation is that this psychological distance from others helps them better “digest” the difficult decisions that those in power sometimes have to make. In practice, not putting themselves in the place of the employees who will be fired or of the people who will be affected by a law helps them make that decision while preserving the positive image they have of themselves. Therefore, it would be a kind of defense mechanism to defend their ego.
In this sense, a study carried out at the University of California revealed that when the decisions to be made are conflictive and there is great pressure, powerful people react in an unexpected way since they decide faster and show more confidence and satisfaction with their decision. In addition, they usually apply a strategy of alternatives analyzing the options that favor the achievement of the objectives and discard the attribute strategies, which consist of analyzing the characteristics or qualities of the situation.
To conclude, Susan Fiske, a professor at Princeton University, considers that this lack of empathy is due to the fact that power diminishes the need to seek information about people in order to understand them and act accordingly. In practice, powerful people are less interested in others, individualize less and, therefore, are more likely to fall into stereotypes and prejudices, simply because they do not need to do so since their position of power places them above the others.
Of course, that empathy deficit does not affect all people who have power. There are those who continue to preserve their ability to connect with the others and put themselves in their shoes. After all, power is not a position but a state of mind. A politician can feel powerful, as well as an officer of the state security forces or a judge, but the owner of a business or even the teacher who exercises certain authority over his students can also feel powerful.
Those who understand the responsibility that comes with power and see it as a transitory state that allows them to help others and improve their lives, can preserve their empathy. Unfortunately, they are few, especially as we move up the pyramid of authority.
Li, X. & Chen, C. (2021) When the going gets tough: Power affects the process of making tough decisions. The Journal of Social Psychology; DOI:10.1080/00224545.2021.1874258.
Useem, J. (2017) Power Causes Brain Damage. En: The Atlantic.
Obhi, S. S. & Naish, K. R. (2015) Self-selected conscious strategies do not modulate motor cortical output during action observation. J Neurophysiol; 114(4): 2278-2284.
Obhi, S. S. et. Al. (2014) Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology; 143(2): 755-762.
Galinsky, A. D. (2012) The Far-Reaching Effects of Power: At the Individual, Dyadic, and Group Levels. Research on Managing Groups and Teams; 15: 81-113.
Fiske, S. T. & Dépret, E. (2011) Control, Interdependence and Power: Understanding Social Cognition in Its Social Context. European Review of Social Psychology; 7(1): 31-61.
Keltner, D. et. Al. (2003) Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others. Psychological Science; 19(12): 1315-1322.