The news: Considering a promotion? Consider this first: As you get more powerful, physical changes in your brain will make you less and less empathetic towards the people around you.
It's no surprise that powerful people care less about others, yet this is one of the first times scientists have been able to see exactly what happens as we climb the social ladder.
It turns out that bringing in steadily more money or joining a higher social class (or, as so often happens in America, both) causes shifts in the brain in a special region that gauges our sensitivity to other peoples' actions and emotions. As we feel more and more powerful, we have more and more trouble putting ourselves in others' shoes.
The recent finding comes from three Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University who published their research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
I feel you (or not): This special brain area, known as the mirror system, is filled with cells that activate when you carry out an action, like opening a door or walking across a room, or when you watch someone else do that action. It's part of how we get inside other people's heads. And because what we do is linked with how we feel or what we want, the mirror region is what helps us empathize with another person's motivations.
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Those who feel more powerful show far less activity in the brain region that helps us feel empathy. Yet in those who feel powerless, the mirror region sparkles with activity — meaning people can empathize with what they witness.
"Power diminishes all varieties of empathy," Daniel Keltner, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR.
Existing psychological research backs up this idea: A 2010 study, for example, found that people in a higher social class were less able to identify the emotions in photographs of human faces than coworkers in a lower social class. In a 2003 review, a group of psychologists noted that powerful people pay attention to others only insofar as how they satisfy their own wants or needs. People who feel powerless, on the other hand, pay closer attention to others' feelings and actions because they are often more dependent on them to avoid punishment or threats.
The big picture: Bringing in steadily more money or joining a higher social class causes physical changes in the brain that make it harder for us to feel for others. Being aware that there's a scientific, not merely a social, reason that people with power become less attuned to the needs of others could help us break a cycle of inequity.