These words are famously associated with Bill Clinton, who as a politician seemed to ooze empathy. A skeptic might wonder, though, whether such a powerful figure really was personally distressed by the suffering of average Americans. Can people in high positions of power — be they presidents, bosses, celebrities and so on — easily empathize with those beneath them?
Psychological research suggests the answer is no. Studies have repeatedly shown that participants who are in high positions of power (or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful) are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people, compared to participants who are powerless (or are made to feel so).
In the New York Times, Michael Inzlicht and Sukhvinder Obhi present new research from cognitive neuroscience that suggests why this occurs. On the basis of a study they recently published in collaboration with Jeremy Hogeveen in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they contend that when people experience power, their brains actually change how sensitive they are to the actions of others. Read their full story in the New York Times Sunday Review.