How Power Impacts Compassion

Responding and helping others in times of suffering is the foundation of cooperative societies. Our society, global, or local, is often founded and run on that basic premise. There is an expectation that when something goes wrong, someone from the community will step forward to help. Now, taking it one step further is the expectation of social responsibility where we expect the powerful to be more generous towards those less powerful. This expectation may imply that individuals expect people to become less caring or compassionate as they amass wealth and power and hence, are making it a norm for powerful people to help by putting expectations on those powerful people.

The Thought Process

While cooperation forms the building blocks of society, does it differ with social ‘class’? If so, how does power interact with distress? Researchers at University of Amsterdam and UBerkeley, hypothesized that people with a higher sense of power would reciprocate a lesser emotional response and would also show reduced compassion to someone else’s suffering.

What They Did

118 undergraduates participated. Same-sex individuals were randomly paired and seated across from one another. These participants were connected to a physiological monitoring equipment. The participants completed questionnaires of social power and baseline emotions. Participants were then asked to think of a distressing memory within the past five years and to write a summary of the same. Each participant took 5 minutes to talk about their event while the other listened. Emotional ratings were taken after individuals shared their stories.

What They Found

Researchers found that

  1.  Individuals with a higher sense of power felt less distressed to their partner’s distress that did low-power individuals.
  2. High-power individuals were less compassionate in their responses to another’s distress than were low-power individuals.

What This Means for Us

While the findings seem intuitive, the implications are quite saddening. That means for any of us who intend to get powerful, we might have to work harder at being more compassionate. While it isn’t technically a ‘duty’ to be compassionate, it is definitely a responsibility, especially of those who have the power to influence change.

I think for us, the most important take away from this study is that we should consciously work towards being more humble, and compassionate especially as we climb the power ladder in life.

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