Why the Powerful Often Lack Empathy

Recently, NPR reported on a new scientific study showing a correlation between feelings of power and lack of empathy. Apparently, feeling powerful can block a part of our brain that helps us empathize with others, while feeling powerless can boost that part of our brain. We’ve all seen how power can turn some people into jerks. Now we partially know why.

This study doesn’t have implications for powerful people only, however; it has implications for all of us, powerful or not. Even if we don’t realize it, we all at times pursue and enjoy activities that give us a sense of control over others, even if the control is just an illusion. From playing video games to leading church groups to winning an argument, all these activities provide us opportunities to exercise power. And while that may not be the motivating reason we pursue these activities, it is at least a part of why we enjoy them—it feels good to be king. Perhaps this new study can help us be more aware of the potential empathy-defeating effects of seemingly harmless (and even good) activities we engage in.

Take certain media fantasy games, for example. Whether we are creating a virtual world of subordinates or blowing up bad guys, there is definitely an addictive rush of pleasure that comes from the power involved. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it could be if we let it affect how we treat others in real life. And, if this study is correct, there is a scientific reason for thinking that’s possible; especially when you consider how much time some people spend in these fantasy worlds.

In light of all this, it might be good to ask ourselves some honest questions:

Is there any activity I engage in where I am in a position of power or control over others that I enjoy a little too much?

When I let that feeling of power go to my head, do I put people off? Do I stop thinking of how others might feel?

How do these activities affect my relationships?

Reflecting on, and answering these questions honestly might give us wisdom in learning how to love people better.

About James Hoskins

James Hoskins is a teacher, writer, musician, and philosophy geek. He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and a M.A. in Science & Religion from Biola University. James teaches philosophy and science classes at a private, college prep high school in the Kansas City area. You can find him at his blog PhiloLogos, and on Twitter under @clumsybrute.


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