People in high places are often observed as having let the power go to their heads. As it turns out, there could be some scientific truth to this.
An article in The Atlantic reports the work of Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at Berkeley, University of California. After several years of lab and field experiments, Keltner found that people in powerful positions acted more impulsively, were less risk-aware, and were less able to see things from someone else’s point of view.
Strangely, these traits are synonymous with people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.
In one paper, Keltner and his team examined how power influences “reciprocal and complementary emotional reactions to the suffering of another person.” In other words, how empathetic they were.
There were 118 participants in the study, and they were randomly paired up, and told to sit two feet apart facing each other. They were then wired up to physiological monitoring equipment and asked to complete measures of social power and their emotional state.
Subjects were then asked to think of an event over the past five years which had caused them high levels of emotional pain. They were asked to write it down, and then take 5 minutes each talking about their experience while the other participant listened.
Emotional ratings were measured after each person had taken their turn. Talkers had to make sure they conveyed the emotions and impact of the event on their life, and the listeners had to try and gain an understanding of the other person’s experience and were allowed to ask questions at the end.
The researchers came to the conclusion that social power makes people give less value to the emotional reactions of others who are suffering.
“Higher-power participants experienced less reciprocal emotion (distress) and less complementary emotion (compassion) in response to another individual disclosing an experience of suffering, and they showed more autonomic emotion regulation as well,” the study reads.
Keltner told The Atlantic that there is often a “power paradox” that takes place. Once people have power, they lose some of what got them there in the first place. Seeing the world the way someone else does, or being empathetic towards others is a big part of that.
Another study from 2006 demonstrated this. The research was led by psychologist Adam Galinsky, and subjects were asked to draw the letter E on their own forehead for others to view. This task requires the ability to see yourself from someone else’s perspective. The researchers found that those who considered themselves powerful were three times more likely to draw the E backwards — because that would be the right way from their own vantage point.
Sukhvinder Obhi is a neuroscientist at McMaster University and described something similar in his research. Powerful people stock mimicking others in social interactions, which is a common part of how our conversations work, called “mirroring.” For example, when someone laughs, our instinct is to laugh too.
In one study, Obhi and his team asked participants to watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball, while being wired up to a machine called a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) which measured what parts of the brain were firing.
For those who were not powerful, the neural pathways in their brains that told them to squeeze the ball fired strongly. However, this was less apparent in the powerful group.
In another study, Obhi and his team looked into whether this mirroring instinct could be increased depending on how much effort people put into doing it. However, even when people were informed of mirroring, and told to increase or decrease their responses, it made no difference.
So if power has gone to your head, you might be damaged for good. However, it could be argued that there are some advantages to having less empathy if you’re in a position of power and have to make some tough decisions.
But if someone you know is veering close to “Hubris Syndrome” — a manifestation of a number of unsettling personality traits like losing a sense of reality, excessive self confidence and a contempt for others — then you might want to stay clear.
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