It is often observed that power can change people. But why is that? A new study by Hogeveen and colleagues (2013) examined this. In short, the study shows that power changes how the brain operates at a very fundamental level. It seems to change the neurological basis for empathy.
More specifically, the possession of power influences the brain’s mirror system. The mirror system consists of mirror neurons that constitute the neurological basis of empathy.
The mirror system becomes activated whenever we act or observe others act. Basically, the mirror system makes it possible to go inside another person’s head. We may infer the intentions of another person on the basis of the person’s actions.
This is because of the fact that actions are closely connected to intentions. For example, if someone screams in pain, we tend to feel his or her pain. The brain simply activates representations of pain.
The researchers allocated the participants into three experimental conditions. A low-power, a neutral, and a high-power condition. The participants were put in the mindset of feeling either powerless, neutral or powerful.
The researchers wanted to see, how the different groups responded to someone else performing a simple task. Watching someone else perform a task is thought to influence the mirror system that, in turn, influences the ability to experience empathy (via motor resonance).
The researchers examined the motor resonance of all participants with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to see, whether the possession of power changes the mirror system.
The study shows that feeling powerful weakens the mirror system, while feeling powerless boosts the mirror system. This means that people who feel powerful are likely to experience a diminished level of empathy, while people who feel powerless, in contrast, are likely to experience high levels of empathy.
In other words, powerful people may experience difficulties getting inside other people’s minds. This ability, however, is highly valuable when we socialize since the ability facilitates social interactions. The lack of motor resonance, as seen in highly powerful people, may therefore contribute to an asymmetry in social interactions.
It is problematic if powerful people cannot put themselves in the position of their subordinates, especially for the work environment. This study emphasizes the need to be down-to-earth, so to speak, especially in times of success.