Why Powerful People Find It Difficult to Empathize

Some have theorized powerful people lack empathy because they do not need the less-powerful to access important resources. But contemporary neuroscientists have a different explanation.

What's the Latest?


New studies suggest that people in powerful positions struggle to empathize with those who occupy more humble ranks. In one such study at the University of Illinois, researchers found that "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. (While social class and social power are admittedly not the same, they are strongly related.)" Some sociologists have theorized powerful people lack empathy because they do not need the less-powerful to access important resources. But contemporary neuroscientists have a different explanation.

What's the Big Idea?

Associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Michael Inzlicht argues that the experience of power fundamentally changes how sensitive one's brain is to the actions of others. When people experience situations of power, their brains experience less motor stimulation--an event that is evidence of our ability to resonate with what another person is doing. "In short, the brains of powerful people did not mirror the actions of other people. ... So the bad news is that the powerful are, by default and at a neurological level, simply not motivated to care. But the good news is that they are, in theory, redeemable."

Read more at the New York Times

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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