The powerful are not compassionate, shows study


Washington : Can a powerful person be compassionate? The answer is no. They even have a weak desire to know or be friends with a distressed individual, according to a new study.

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Gerben A. van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley, examined how power influences emotional reactions to the suffering of others.

They suggested that powerful people’s tendency to show less compassion and distress towards others reinforces their social power.

“High-power individuals may suffer in interpersonal relationships because of their diminished capacity for compassion and empathy. The many benefits enjoyed by people with power may not translate to the interpersonal realm,” they said.

A group of undergraduates completed questionnaires about their personal sense of power, which identified them as either being high-power or low-power.

The students were then randomly paired and had to tell their partner about an event which had caused them emotional suffering and pain.

Their partners then rated their emotions after hearing the story. In addition, the researchers were interested in seeing if there were physical differences in the way high-power people and low-power people responded to others’ suffering.

Specifically they wanted to test if high-powered individuals would exhibit greater autonomic emotion regulation [or respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) reactivity], according to a statement from University of California, Berkeley. The findings appeared in the December issue of Psychological Science.

When we are faced with psychological stress, our RSA reactivity increases, resulting in a lower heart rate and a calmed, relaxed feeling. To measure RSA reactivity and heart rates, all of the participants were connected to electrocardiogram (ECG) machines during the experiment.

The results reveal that individuals with a higher sense of power experienced less compassion and distress when confronted with another’s suffering, compared to low-power individuals.

Besides, high-power individuals’ RSA reactivity increased (as indicated by lower heart rate) as they listened to the painful stories; that is, high power participants showed more autonomic emotion regulation, which buffered against their partner’s distress.

Analysis of the participants’ final surveys (where they rated their thoughts about their partners) revealed that high-power individuals reported a weaker desire to get to know and establish a friendship with their partner.

In other words, powerful people were not motivated to establish a relationship with distressed individuals.