Friday, January 12, 2007

Empathy and Power

The powerful are less able to understand the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of others, according to the December 2006 issue of Psychological Science, as reported in Science Daily.
...possessing power itself serves as an impediment to understanding the perspectives of others. Through several studies, the researchers assessed the effect of power on perspective taking, adjusting to another's perspective, and interpreting the emotions of others.

This is not exactly surprising. For example, critical psychologists have noticed that many stereotypically "female" traits or skills, such as empathy, caregiving, nonviolence, and nurturing, are due to power differentials rather than biology. In other words, groups in subordinate social positions learn these skills for survival. I think it has something to do with being able to read those who hold more power; for example, anticipating their needs could lead to better rewards.

The abstract of the study reports:
Four experiments and a correlational study explored the relationship between power and perspective taking. In Experiment 1, participants primed with high power were more likely than those primed with low power to draw an E on their forehead in a self-oriented direction, demonstrating less of an inclination to spontaneously adopt another person's visual perspective. In Experiments 2a and 2b, high-power participants were less likely than low-power participants to take into account that other people did not possess their privileged knowledge, a result suggesting that power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others' perspectives. In Experiment 3, high-power participants were less accurate than control participants in determining other people's emotion expressions; these results suggest a power-induced impediment to experiencing empathy. An additional study found a negative relationship between individual difference measures of power and perspective taking. Across these studies, power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how other people see, think, and feel. (emphasis mine)

Other interesting related links:
What can the Stanford prison and Milgram experiments tell us about abuses at Abu Ghraib and Creating Gender Role Behavior: Demonstrating the Impact of Power Differentials


Larry Gambone said...

I have always thought that the people in power, if not actual sociopaths, certainly are made to act like sociopaths by the need to control us for their own benefit. One way to undermine the legitmacy of authoritariam power structures is to point out their sociopathic nature. If we can work on this idea long enough people will eventually come to the conclusion, "You (politician, bureaucrat, CEO) want power over us, you must be sick, man!" At that point we will win...

Anonymous said...

Very insightful. You continue to impress me with the work you're doing here. Well done Red Jenny.

I find it interesting that this study seems to validate the idea that the solution is not to exchange the current authority figures with new authority figures, but rather the problem is the structures of authority themselves.

K-Dough said...

Jenny: To me, this brings up an interesting question around the distortion of those so-called feminine traits to the point of codependency (in both men and women). I.e.: those in codependent relationships (which definitely entail aspects of unequal power sharing) exist in a kind of love/hate/resentment state.

I.e.: Too much compassion to the detriment of one's own hapiness/safety/subsistence can be a real danger.