Power and empathy

A professional academic will probably be situated within at least two hierarchies of power: that in their profession and that in their institution. And each hierarchy can have different types of sub-hierarchies. A female philosophy professor might turn to the more powerful members of these hierarchies for help when dealing with problems of, for example, egregious harassment.

And the response she receives might show a stunning lack of understanding. And if you are like me, you may be left wondering how a seemingly wise person can miss out on so much. How does acute understanding come to have such limited scope? Don’t we inhabit the same communities?

One answer from the social sciences is that power limits empathy.

Can people in high positions of power — presidents, bosses, celebrities, even dominant spouses — easily empathize with those beneath them?

Psychological research suggests the answer is no. Studies have repeatedly shown that participants who are in high positions of power (or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful) are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people, compared to participants who are powerless (or are made to feel so).

I think these findings are very troubling. When I looked recently at a committee formed to deal with some climate issues, I was shocked to see a particular powerful person on it. This person is quite happy to say that he doesn’t think academic women are discriminated against. Even if we grant his belief is within the circle of permissible opinions, at least he should see that his opinion is problematic. And he didn’t.

So when bias and bigotry can undercut the credibility of bottom-up efforts at reform in a profession, why haven’t there been more top down efforts? Particularly from the dominant majority? Could powerful members of a dominant majority just care much less? And if so, does that explain the large stretches of neglect we see in, for example, reactions of indifference to scandals of abuse? Or even support for abusers?

And then there’s the men of the US Supreme Court.

Philosophers interested in standpoint theory may profit from looking at the references in the article quoted. Some research suggests that having power can alter our neuropsychological capacity for social knowledge.

7 thoughts on “Power and empathy

  1. 3 studies with the same general result are mentioned in the article.
    I’m not sure about how to deal with it. One response would be to add in more rules and punishments, as the fed gov. Is doing with higher ed and sexual assault.

  2. One promising line may be to look at what is different about those who remain empathetic even when they become powerful. Recent Supreme Court disagreements suggest that experiences early on might be important.

    This article reviews research on power, empathy and collaboration. One thing it shows clearly is that there is a lot that is not well understood.

  3. I think it would be worthwhile to analyze the assumptions and presuppositions of the experiments.

    The argument in the first experiment seems to be something like

    1. If someone has a higher blood flow to motor cortex, then they have more empathy than someone who has a lower blood flow to their motor cortex

    2. If someone writes out a memory in which they felt powerful and they watch a video of someone squeezing a ball, then there will be higher blood flow to their motor cortex than someone who writes out a memory in which they feel powerless and watch the video.

    3. Someone who writes out a memory in which they feel powerful does have higher blood flow to their motor cortex when watching the video.

    Thus, people who are more powerful feel less empathy.

    I find all three premises questionable.

    1. How do the sociologists know that that they are measuring the feeling of being powerful? I have no doubt that people feel powerful. But does a powerful person always feel powerful when they are exercising power? I certainly have (some) power over my students when I’m grading, however I don’t associate grading with a specific feeling but with a wide range of feelings that change over time. I might say that I feel powerful when I teach a good class, but I also feel excited, satisfied, etc. What sort of test would show that it is power and only power that is being measured?

    2. I would be really curious to see how they measured whether someone’s memory expressed more or less power, and what metric they used to measure power.

    3. I would question whether having someone recall a memory in which they felt powerful really “induce[s]” a feeling of power. I can easily imagine recalling a memory of being in love and it making me feel lonely. In addition, being powerful is not synonymous with feeling powerful. Being powerful clearly brings with it a wide range of feelings (like when grading) because when one is powerful one is not just in a psychological state but has a (temporally extended) social status.

    4. Does the experience of watching someone squeeze a ball seem like it accurately captures the experience of being empathetic? I just don’t see how making laws or hiring decisions have _any_ relevant similarities. In other words, even if the feeling of power were measurable, and the studies accurately measured it, the difference between the circumstances of the experiment and the wide variety of circumstances in which people have power seem really wide.

    5. The claim that mirror neurons are accurate measures of empathy needs a lot more support and would seem to get pretty quickly into highly contentious philosophical issues.

    6. I strongly suspect that the more tests are done, the less apparent results like this will be.

  4. Colin, I don’t think you are connecting with the research. They are not measuring the feeling of being powerful, at least not directly.

    One basic idea is that being able to mirror other’s actions and reactions is very important in “feeling their pain.” But, the argument goes, a sense of being powerful reduces one’s ability to mirror. So it reduces one’s ability to share their perspective. The lack of blood flow is taken to show that one’s mirroring capacities are reduced.

  5. Thanks for your response. I was only trying to point out that the experiment rest on a number of questionable premises and hypotheses, and, consequently, that it’s way too early to take the conclusions too seriously. I was going to leave it here, but I ended up re-writing and hopefully clarifying my objections.

    1. I think that one can wonder whether the researchers have actually managed to induce a feeling of powerfulness among their subjects because having a memory of a feeling is not the same as having the feeling. Even if they did induce that feeling of powerfulness, the feeling of powerfulness is not the same as being powerful. Someone who is powerful, may not feel it, or, even if they do feel powerful, probably also feels many other emotions. All three possibilities raise questions about whether the experimenters achieved the relevant state in their subjects and consequently whether the experimenters test what they think they are testing.

    2. Even ignoring all the issues in 1, it seems highly questionable whether watching someone squeeze a ball has any interesting connection to the experience of, e.g., a judge making an important decision. Here’s the inference as I understand it:

    If people with a feeling of power tend to have less empathy when watching a video of a ball being squeezed, then most likely, everyone with a feeling of power tends to have less empathy when engaging in any empathetic activity.

    As it stands, I don’t find the inference compelling. I might find it more compelling if they tested lots and lots of people in lots and lots of different scenarios.

    3. Even ignoring the issues in 1 and 2, I think some important questions need to be answered about the inference from mirror neurons to empathy: does decreased blood flow to the motor cortex demonstrate a diminishment of overall mirroring capacity? Does a diminishment in mirroring capacity lead to a diminishment in empathy? I feel like I’m losing track of how “empathy” is being used. Sometimes it seems like empathy means (a) “understanding another person’s action” in the sense of “understanding that they are opening and closing their hand.” In this sense of empathy, when I go to yoga class, I’m engaging in empathy when I can imitate what the teacher is doing. Sometimes empathy seems to mean (b) “understanding another person’s action” in the sense of “understanding their reasons for action.” In this sense of empathy, I’m engaging with empathy when I try to understand the reasons for why Israel is invading Palestine, and why Palestine is resisting. (a) and (b) are probably connected, but I’m not convinced that a loss of (a) entails a loss of (b). Consequently, it seems to me that there is a bit of a bait and switch. The experimenters want to conclude that the experiment tests (b), but measuring activation in the _motor_ cortex would suggest that the experiment (if it tests for anything) tests for (a). It doesn’t follow from my poor ability to imitate my yoga teacher, that I’m bad at understanding his reasons for action.

  6. Colin, I’m wondering about the trouble you are having with the article. I can’t quite decide who’s problem it is. If one reads that the researchers take one’s writing down details about a period when one felt powerful to arouse that feeling in one, one reaction might be to assume that the article is not full of silly assumptions, and so there must be some experimental grounding for this assumption. As indeed there is, in fact a lot of it.

    In thinking about this, one needs to distinguish between what one might call “third-person recall” and “first-person recall”. So one can recall an occasion on which one felt superior rather in the way one might recall someone else’s acting or feeling that way. First-person recall is different; it’s remembering from the inside and typically involves feeling the emotion or, as Hume might say, a fainter copy of it.

    The distinction underlies the very important human ability to rehearse things in a way that affects performance. That ability extends over a wide range of human life. It can be very important to athletes, but also to people getting through an interview or an interaction with an irritating child, and so on.

    I think you haven’t read much about mirror neurons, imitating, empirical research on empathy, and so on. With empirical research, such as that the post mentions, the philosophical talent for spotting gaps can come to grief because one doesn’t know what it is alright to assume in the research field.

    This can amount to a problem for philosophers in an interdisciplinary setting. The thing to remember is that when the research being reported is in an area where a great deal of work is being done, it is best not to assume that the researchers are making silly and obviously discernible mistakes. They may of course be doing so, but it is safer to assume they aren’t, and one is likely to learn more by trying to find out what is filling what one sees as gaps.

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