Empathy and Power

I listened to an interesting podcast the other day on the issue of power. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who teaches at UC Berkeley, shared his research that found those who are generous, kind and empathetic are typically people who don’t hold much power in society. This didn’t much surprise me, I think it makes intuitive sense. His research also demonstrated that those employees, people, and leaders who experience the most respect from others, and thus social power, are those who are emotionally intelligent, kind and generous. Displaying empathy therefore is a force that can lead you to acquire social power. This was interesting to me because I have heard time and again that being “too kind” or “too empathetic” can lead you to be either taken advantage of or left behind. Gender constructions position women most often in the “kindness” box and we see that few women acquire extensive, large-scale social or structural power. Indeed, if they are perceived as too kind or too empathetic then society judges them harshly as weak.

What was most fascinating about Keltner’s research however, was that when folks acquire power, they tend to lose their capacity to be empathetic: “once we feel powerful, we lose - or our capacity to empathize and to know what others are thinking really is diminished.” In gaining power within whatever system a person exists, they can become less invested in others and their empathy networks in the brain are actually quieted (research by Keely Muscatell and Supvindeer Obdea shows this). Folks who hold a lot of power and privilege, the research shows, have inactive empathy networks in their frontal lobes. Keltner on Muscatell and Obdea’s research: “if you come from a position of privilege and power, the classic empathy networks in the frontal lobes of your brain are not even active when you're thinking about another [person]. So this is a very deep effect of what power does to our empathic capacities.”

I am not a scientist nor do I know much about the brain, however, I found this to be pretty interesting. The interviewer asked about billionaires who are also very philanthropic but the researcher’s response was to point out that the philanthropy might actually be a very small percentage of their actual wealth versus someone with less who gives a greater percentage of their income/assets. If someone only gives a tiny percentage of their wealth, even though this figure might be enormous, does that actually make them particularly generous or empathetic to other people’s needs?


When I think about leadership, I think fondly of those leaders I have encountered who truly seem to care about those around them and their communities. Sadly, these people I can probably count on one hand. Most leadership lessons I have experienced have been lessons in how not to treat others. Individuals I have known in workplaces who I might categorize as empathetic and generous, when rising in the ranks and acquiring more (structural) power within that system, have been unpredictable in how they have then continued to maintain connection with their colleagues and continued to exercise empathetic and generous leadership. Power corrupts, we have all heard that phrase, but research is showing that corruption isn’t just a selfish desire to maintain one’s power per se, but instead a dampening of the parts of the brain that oversee empathy. Gaining power creates a physiological reaction that diminishes our actual ability to be empathetic to others. What does this mean for leadership in general? How do we each maintain a connectivity to kindness and generosity when our brain changes as we gain power – social, political, structural, financial or otherwise? We can see this playing out right now in the U.S. presidential election.


Hidden Brain podcast on power: http://www.npr.org/2016/09/06/492305430/the-perils-of-power