How and why power changes people



”The full man does not understand the wants of the hungry” – this folk saying has some truth in it. A couple of years ago, its accuracy was scientifically proven.

During an experiment, the Danish scientists asked a group of people to express their support for different governmental policies. Some of the individuals were satiated at the moment of experiment, while others were hungry. To the surprise of the scientists, a rather tight correlation between the individuals’ degree of hunger and their options was noted. The hungry ones opted more for social policies that included the equal distribution of goods. At the same time, the satiated individuals proved to be less empathic on the social level [Petersen et al., 2013].

The study, extrapolated to the political level, offers a curious explanation of the way in which our electoral predilections are formed; hunger, for example, generates sympathies for left-wing parties. Thus, although we have the impression that the decisions we make are based on logical reasoning, we are also often influenced by physiological and emotional factors.

There are some studies that have shown that rich people get less often involved in charitable activities and donate less than the poor ones. Of course, the influence of the culture and social structure also matters – in cooperative communities people donate more than in individualist ones -, but, as a general behavioral model, the rich people are less generous, for they act rather from the principle of “noblesse oblige” when doing philanthropy, rather than from real impulses of compassion and altruism [Piff et al., 2010].

One of the explanations is that the rich people do not have a ”trained” feeling of compassion and charity, because they rarely see needing people around them; simply speaking, their helping reflexes are not developed and they don’t empathize so much with other people’s sufferings. On the other hand, in an environment that offers little, showing compassion and being prosocial represent a useful adaptation for collective survival [1] [Goetz et al., 2010].

In the world of business, a good adaptation to an environment presumes other traits and properties. Money don’t go well with morality, and richness may generate egoistic and unethical behavior. Scientists use the term ”the abundance effect” to describe changes in attitude that appear in people who get rich [Gino, Pierce, 2009].

It has been established that even highly developed skills in calculus, and, by default, in accounting, can induce even a stronger egocentrism and encourage unethical actions [Wang et al., 2014]. In financial areas, like, for example, in banking system, it often happens that a dishonest character is deliberately cultivated in employees, so that they would be focused on generating profit [2] [Cohn et al., 2014].

This, as well as other reasons, explain why individuals who reach high positions and have access to numerous resources become selfish on the social level. Let us recall the so-called Iron law of oligarchy that was proposed by the German sociologist Robert Michels in 1911, who claims that any form of polity, no matter if it has democratic or autocratic origins, will inevitably turn into oligarchy.

History is filled with examples where even the leaders of revolutionary, proletarian and socialist movements, once in power, started to undermine democratic procedures and give up on egalitarian values they had fought for. The leaders, therefore, become more greedy and hubristic. They have even less emotional empathy. Therefore, we should be very sceptical when we hear heads of states and politicians saying that they ”understand our pain”, that ”they suffer along with everybody”. In reality, things are by far not so soulful.

Psychological studies have proven that individuals who occupy high positions of power are less able to perceive the emotional struggle of other people. In particular, as compared to people from lower strata, individuals from the upper class are less able to read mimic expressions [Kraus et al., 2010].

These effects can appear due to the fact that those who have reached power can afford to become indifferent to other people’s wishes and motivations. They are not interested in diagnosing other people’s emotions, because they have already attained the desired position and have other objects at this moment [Fiske, Dépret, 1996]. Some kind of “emotional blindness” or “social blindness” is created among highly-placed individuals. Bosses’ inability to be empathic may also reflect on their marital relations in their own families.

On the other side of the spectrum, leaders prove to be good manipulators and can assimilate the regularities of social behaviour, in order to be able to influence people around them more easily [Cook et al., 2014]. But we must distinguish between the rational capacity to manipulate and the emotional capacity to empathize. At the rational level, they become Machiavellian, more manipulative; at the level of their attitude, the individuals who reach high positions are not as empathic and emotive with the people around them as they used to be. Power makes them more distant and cynical.

Moreover, as soon as they reach power, politicians tend to dehumanize simple people (to treat them as tools, objects or inferior beings). Why is this happening? A position of power implies taking harsh decisions that may cause moral pain and suffering. Dehumanization helps these leaders, on the psychological level, to take these decisions more easily [Lammers, Stapel, 2011].

In other words, watching the people as a mass of inferior individuals is a way of psychological defence that is used to avoid the cognitive dissonance and the interior moral conflict. It is as if a moral disengagement of the leaders in relation to the mass would take place.

According to a study that was published in 2014, the feeling of power changes the way the brain himself reacts to other people’s actions. In the human brain, just like in the brain of primates, there is a system called “mirror-neurons” that reacts as an imitation to the actions of the other members of the group. To a large extent, this system of mirror-neurons is responsible for our attitudes and empathic behavior, and it also facilitates our social communication.

However, the social gap, the distance take by political leaders from simple citizens, interferes with the functioning of the mirror-neurons system, leading to the fact that the brain of the representatives do not fully resonate with the actions of other people, as compared to the brain of those who do not have power and functions. Thus, the reduced empathy of bosses and politicians has a neurobiological base [Hogeveen et al., 2014].

Finally, when individuals with a psychopathic profile reach power, we should know that they are almost incapable to emotionally empathize. According to James Fallon, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist at University of California, there are two types of empathy: the cognitive one, when we understand what others feel, and the emotive one, when we fell what others feel. Autistic people, for example, are emotionally empathic, for they can feel other’s pain, but they suffer from the incapacity to read with accuracy the emotions and dispositions of those from around them.

Psychopaths are exactly the other way around: they can be very skillful in recognizing other people’s emotions and thoughts, a skill that allows them to be skillful manipulators (they are especially good at identifying weak people). However, the emotive empathy is foreign for psychopaths, and they cannot share other people’s emotional feelings: they are “deaf and blind” to other people’s pain. Paradoxically, psychopaths seem to be more “rational” than the “spirited” people around them. They see themselves as “cats” in a world filled with “mice”.

This is why it’s easier for individuals with psychopathic profile to integrate into a community, as a sect leader or as a political leader, and to say: “I feel what you feel”; but, in reality, he will be a “cat” that pretends to be a “mouse”, in order to manipulate and gain status, resources, power and women [3].

We have the reason to believe that such a survival strategy, filled with extraordinary shamelessness and pragmatism, was advantageous from an evolutionary point of view, and that is why individuals with a psychopathic profile are rather numerous in our days and are present in areas that are highly competitive, areas like business, show-biz and politics.

© Dorian Furtună, ethologist

1. The rich are different – and not in a good way, studies suggest // by Brian Alexander. NBCNews. 8/10/2011 /
2. Banking Culture Encourages Dishonesty. What is it about the financial sector that encourages bad behavior? // by Francesca Gino. Scientific American. December 30, 2014 /
3. Scientist: Here’s How To Spot A Psychopath // by Tom Chivers. Business Insider. Nov. 2, 2014 /

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