Even the smallest dose of power can change a person. You've probably seen it. Someone gets a promotion or a bit of fame and then, suddenly, they're a little less friendly to the people beneath them.
So here's a question that may seem too simple: Why?
If you ask a psychologist, he or she may tell you that the powerful are simply too busy. They don't have the time to fully attend to their less powerful counterparts.
But if you ask Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, he might give you another explanation: Power fundamentally changes how the brain operates.
Obhi and his colleagues, Jeremy Hogeveen and Michael Inzlicht, have a new study showing evidence to support that claim.
Obhi and his fellow researchers randomly put participants in the mindset of feeling either powerful or powerless. They asked the powerless group to write a diary entry about a time they depended on others for help. The powerful group wrote entries about times they were calling the shots.
Then, everybody watched a simple video. In it, an anonymous hand squeezes a rubber ball a handful of times — sort of monotonously. While the video ran, Obhi's team tracked the participants' brains, looking at a special region called the mirror system.
Where Empathy Begins
The mirror system is important because it contains neurons that become active both when you squeeze a rubber ball and when you watch someone else squeeze a rubber ball. It is the same thing with picking up a cup of coffee, hitting a baseball, or flying a kite. Whether you do it or someone else does, your mirror system activates. In this small way, the mirror system places you inside a stranger's head.
Furthermore, because our actions are linked to deeper thoughts — like beliefs and intentions — you may also begin to empathize with what motivates another person's actions.
"When I watch somebody picking up a cup of coffee, the mirror system activates the representations in my brain that would be active if I was picking up a cup of coffee," Obhi explains. "And because those representations are connected in my brain to the intentions that would normally activate them, you can get activation of the intention. So you can figure out, 'Hey, this person wants to drink coffee.' "
Obhi's team wanted to see if bestowing a person with a feeling of power or powerlessness would change how the mirror system responds to someone else performing a simple action.
Feeling Power Over Others
It turns out, feeling powerless boosted the mirror system — people empathized highly. But, Obhi says, "when people were feeling powerful, the signal wasn't very high at all."
So when people felt power, they really did have more trouble getting inside another person's head.
"What we're finding is power diminishes all varieties of empathy," says Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, not involved in the new study. He says these results fit a trend within psychological research.
"Whether you're with a team at work [or] your family dinner, all of that hinges on how we adapt our behaviors to the behaviors of other people," he says. "And power takes a bite out of that ability, which is too bad."
The good news, Keltner says, is an emerging field of research that suggests powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back to their compassionate selves.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
A sense of power and influence can change a person's behavior. And it doesn't even take billions of dollars to create that sense. Someone gets a promotion or 15 seconds of fame and suddenly, they're different. Maybe they're less friendly, less considerate to the people around them. But can science explain why? NPR's Chris Benderev reports on a group of researchers who are trying with a metal coil, a diary and a strange video.
CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Sukhvinder Obhi is a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. And he's not entirely satisfied - not entirely satisfied with the way some psychologists explain how powerful people behave.
SUKHVINDER OBHI: The powerful are simply not motivated to pay much attention to the powerless. It's because they don't have the time.
BENDEREV: There's something to that, Obhi says. CEOs, politicians, lead singers - these are busy people. But he and his research team felt maybe there was something else going on, an actual difference in the brain that they could measure. So they did a study. They took a bunch of regular people - college kids, mostly - and randomly made them either powerful or powerless. If you got picked for the powerless group, you were told to write a diary entry about a time you really depended on someone else - at work, at school, at home. If you were put in the powerful group, on the other hand, you were asked to write about a time when you were powerful, important, and you knew it.
Like this one woman, Obhi, says, who wrote about meeting her sister's new boyfriend for the first time.
OBHI: She kind of was talking to the boyfriend and asking lots of questions. And it was as if every answer that the boyfriend gave, her sister was looking to her for approval.
BENDEREV: So, while everyone was revisiting their own sense of power - or lack thereof - the researchers quickly had them do something else. They had them watch videos.
OBHI: Videos of a hand - and they don't know whose hand it is; it's just a hand - it's just a video of a hand, squeezing a rubber ball between the index finger and the thumb.
BENDEREV: And meanwhile, the scientists are tracking the brain activity of these college kids using an expensive, magnetic coil and some sensors; looking at a particular system in the brain. It's called the mirror system, and it's the key to this entire study because the mirror system involves brain cells that become active when, for instance, you squeeze a rubber ball. But these brain cells also become active when you just watch somebody else squeeze a rubber ball - which might not sound very profound, but it goes deeper - because, Obhi says, the mirror system also involves things like intentions.
OBHI: When I watch somebody picking up a cup of coffee, the mirror system activates the representations in my brain that would be active if I was picking up a cup of coffee. And because those representations are connected in my brain to the intentions that would normally activate them, you can get activation of the intention. So you can figure out, hey, this person wants to drink coffee.
BENDEREV: Suddenly, the mirror system has put you inside their head. You know what they want, and also what they don't want - which, when you think about it, is a big part of empathy. OK, so back to the experiment. Remember, Obhi and his team have made people feel powerful or powerless. And they're measuring whether power will change how the mirror system reacts to someone else living their life; in this case, some anonymous hand squeezing a rubber ball. And it turns out, feeling powerless boosted the mirror system. The signal was high. But, Obhi says:
OBHI: When people were feeling powerful, the signal wasn't very high at all. The mirror activation, if you like, seemed to be low.
BENDEREV: In other words, when people felt power, they really did have more trouble getting inside another person's head. Dacher Keltner is at UC Berkeley. He says this study provides some biology to something psychologists like him have seen for years.
DACHER KELTNER: What we're finding is that power diminishes all varieties of empathy.
BENDEREV: And less empathy makes it easier to be a jerk.
KELTNER: Whether you're, you know, with your team at work or you're having a family dinner, all of that hinges on how we adapt our behaviors to the behaviors of other people. And power takes a bite out of that ability, which is too bad.
BENDEREV: There's good news though, Keltner says. Emerging research suggests that powerful people can actually coach themselves into being more compassionate. With great power, comes great - well, you know the rest.
Chris Benderev, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.