Does how powerful we feel affect how we think about others—and if so, why? To find out, psychologist Michael Inzlicht and his colleagues induced people to feel different levels of social power, and then looked at what happened in their brains when they watched someone else squeeze a ball.
Typically, “mirror neurons” in our brains are activated not only when we perform a certain action, but also when we watch somebody else perform that action. Researchers believe that our ability to mentally mimic the actions of others is how we understand their emotional states, and ultimately empathize with them. As Inzlicht and Sukhvinder Obhi write in The New York Times, they found that:
For those participants who were induced to experience feelings of power, their brains showed virtually no resonance with the actions of others; conversely, for those participants who were induced to experience feelings of powerlessness, their brains resonated quite a bit. In short, the brains of powerful people did not mirror the actions of other people. … Power, it appears, changes how the brain itself responds to others.
The researchers point out, however, that their experiment didn’t “fundamentally change empathic capability. So the bad news is that the powerful are, by default and at a neurological level, simply not motivated to care. But the good news is that they are, in theory, redeemable.”