Gaining power makes us less empathetic

Le pouvoir ferait de nous de vrais petits diablotins...

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As Montesquieu wrote, That anyone with power tends to abuse it is an eternal truth. “. Financial, legal scandals, physical, psychological or sexual abuse in the political, media, religious or police arena: examples of abuse by persons holding authority or power over others are not lacking.

Is having social power really preparing to go too far and abuse it? Could we not rather consider that those who intensely aspire to power would already tick the boxes of the risk profile, because of certain individual traits such as narcissism, Machiavellianism or psychopathy?

It cannot be excluded, but reducing the inappropriate exercise of power to the simple consequence of individual problems does not make it possible to account for the transformations that it can produce in any individual when he accesses it. Several studies show that anyone who experiences power adopts a particular state of mind that could promote more self-centered and less civil behaviors. Identifying the risks of power is therefore not useless, for those who exercise it… or suffer from it.

A lesser ability to put oneself in the place of others

Thanks to an ingenious experiment, Adam Galinsky and his colleagues at Columbia University showed that people in whom the idea of ​​power was recalled had more difficulty putting themselves in the place of others and adopting a different point. of sight. Let's see how.

Imagine that you are asked to write a text about a personal situation where you had a certain power over other people, for example because of a difference in status. Immediately after this subtle induction of the idea of ​​power, you are subjected to a test of spontaneous perceptual decentration.

For this, you are given a marker with which you must quickly carry out an instruction: draw the letter E in capitals on your forehead. A remarkable phenomenon then occurs: compared to people who were asked to think of a situation where their power was weak, those who had just remembered a personal episode where they had power over others drew three times less. often the letter E in the reading direction of others. The letter thus appeared to be written upside down for others.

At the end of the experiment, the contents of the texts written by the participants were analyzed by outsiders. It appeared that those who had recalled a situation where they had exercised very high power were even less inclined than the others to draw the letter in the correct reading direction for others.

Recognize the emotions of others

Another phenomenon influenced by power is the recognition of emotions that can be read on faces. Michael Kraus of the University of California asked participants to either think of people who had more power, wealth or prestige than themselves, or to think of people who had less.

After this induction, the participants had to put a cross on the drawing of a ladder to place themselves personally on a rung of the social hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, those who were asked to compare themselves to people with less power than themselves placed themselves higher by choosing a higher rung of the ladder than those who thought of people of higher status. Next, participants were presented with photographs in which they had to recognize a series of emotional facial expressions.

People who were temporarily induced into a higher power mindset were found to have significantly lower emotion recognition abilities than others.

These results were confirmed by comparing people of high or low social class on the same test: the former had lower emotional recognition scores. Another study by Keely Muscatell, of the University of California at Los Angeles, consisted of listening to the testimony of a student recounting the beginning of his university semester to participants from high or low social class. At the same time, the researchers measured the brain activity of the participants. They showed that the neural network involved in empathy was less activated in students belonging to a high social class.

Yet another study demonstrated that motor resonance (the activation of a homologous brain network when observing the behavior performed by another person) was weakened after the induction of a mental state of power, as if the ability to share the experience of others was weakened by power.

The more expensive the car, the less civic the driver

These observations suggest that the experience of a status ascendant seems to weaken certain social and cognitive skills that are known to be critical in social relations. This sometimes results in the adoption of uncivil behavior.

On the road, an American study consisted in observing the transgressive behavior committed by motorists according to the status (the economic value) of the car they were driving.

Five types of vehicles were compared, the estimated price of which increased. The results showed that drivers of more expensive cars committed more offenses on average.

For example, there were five times as many Mercedes (high-status car) drivers than old Fords who failed to take turns when multiple vehicles were waiting at a junction.

The same drivers of expensive cars more frequently cut the way for pedestrians: the owners of large cars had the least good citizenship.


Power can also promote uninhibited behaviors. In one study, participants were asked to write university operating rules as a group. At the start of the session, one of them was randomly designated by the researcher as the supervisor, who would then have to reward the others for their work by awarding them points. Thirty minutes after the start of the session, a tray was brought out on which appetizing cookies were presented to the participants. Their number was limited, and only one person had the opportunity to taste two. Behavioral observation showed that those who had supervisor status were twice as likely as others to save themselves a second cookie.

With the scene being discreetly filmed, the researchers also looked at other aspects of participants' behavior, such as how open their mouths were while eating the cookie, the number of times they licked their lips or dropped crumbs while eating. The results showed that participants assigned high status ate less restrained and less polite in front of others.

A metamorphosis caused by politics?

From these studies, it emerges that power can hinder the understanding of the experiences of others and promote uncivil or uninhibited behavior. Admittedly, these are limited experiments and studies that cannot be directly applied to the behavior of such and such a political figure.

However, we observe that political history is dotted with examples of metamorphoses that access to power seems to have provoked (we sometimes speak of the hubris syndrome).

In the laboratory or in the political and social arena, these facts echo in a certain way the theories of Montesquieu, part of whose work was precisely devoted to advocating a division of powers in order to prevent its most serious effects. pernicious.


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