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People who wield power may lack compassion

December 18, 2008 |  3:04 pm

Crying1Powerful people may have worse interpersonal relationships because they lack the ability to be compassionate and empathetic, say the authors of a new study.

Researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Amsterdam gave a group of college students questionnaires to describe their personal sense of power. The students were then classified as high-powered or low-powered and were randomly paired up. The students had to tell their partner about an event that had caused them emotional suffering and pain. Their partners then rated their emotions after hearing the story. They were also connected to an electrocardiogram, which can provide a measurement of their autonomic emotional regulation.

The study, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, found that people with a higher sense of power had less distress and compassion when confronted with another's suffering compared with low-power individuals. The high-power students exhibited more autonomic emotional regulation, which apparently buffered them against their partner's distress. The high-powered people were also less motivated to establish a relationship with the distressed person.

Why would powerful people be colder in their response to another's suffering? The authors of the paper say that this tendency to show less compassion reinforces the feeling of social power. But being able to respond to a loved one's pain is also part of a healthy relationship and strong social ties. The drawback of wielding so much power is that these outwardly successful people may have less success with their spouses, children and friends.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images