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Power Reduces Compassion

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As the philosopher Mel Brooks once remarked, it's good to be king. But does being king make you good? Two new studies suggest power tends to make people less compassionate — with the exception of one specific situation.

Power may or may not corrupt, but it definitely dulls our emotional response to other people’s suffering. That’s the conclusion of a paper published in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science.

A group of scholars led by psychologist Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam assembled a group of undergraduates who, after filling out a questionnaire, were classified as high-power or low-power. The students then broke up into pairs, and each told the other about an incident that had caused them emotional suffering.

Afterwards, the listeners described their reaction to the story, specifying the extent to which they felt sympathy or compassion. They also rated how distressed they judged the storyteller to be, and judged their own feelings of closeness toward him or her. In addition, an electrocardiogram measured their heartbeat to determine whether they were regulating their emotions and thus tempering their response to their partner’s pain.

The results were, well, powerful. The participants in a position of power experienced less compassion and distress than those feeling less powerful. They also reported less interest in establishing a relationship with their partner, and the heart monitors suggested they were regulating their emotions to buffer themselves against feeling too much of their partner’s pain.

“Our study suggests that high-power individuals may suffer in interpersonal relationships because of their diminished capacity for compassion and empathy,” the report concludes.

The powerful may suffer? That’s an appropriately compassionate way to look at the results.

A second study, also led by a University of Amsterdam psychologist, looked at the question of power and empathy from a different perspective. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Michel J.J. Handgraaf describes a series of games played by a group of students, which were designed to produce power shifts.

They found that, as expected, as the participants felt more powerful, they got stingier, offering less money in a bargaining game. But there was an interesting caveat.

“When recipients are completely powerless, offers increase,” the researchers report. “This effect is mediated by a change in framing of the situation. When the opponent is without power, feelings of social responsibility are evoked.”

So, if van Kleef and colleagues correct, the most advantageous position to be in is to have a lot of power or none at all, since the latter state evokes compassion, or at least a sense of noblesse oblige. If the fears that we’re evolving into a society of haves and have-nots prove correct, we’ll all be living in a large-scale study in which it will be discovered whether they’re right.