Power Corrupts? Groundbreaking New Neuroscience Study Says, “Absolutely.”


Empathy isn’t a common word associated with politicians, but now there’s a new study confirming that people in power don’t care as much about the less fortunate.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, and his colleagues, Jeremy Hogeveen and Michael Inzlicht, recently released a study that showed that power actually changes how the brain functions. The study itself was fairly simple: participants in the “powerful” group wrote journal entries about a time they felt powerful, and the “powerless” group wrote journal entries about a time they felt powerless. Afterward, the group would watch a video where a hand would squeeze a stress ball several times while the researchers tracked the participants’ brains, looking particularly at the mirror system. NPR reports,

The mirror system is important because it contains neurons that become active both when you squeeze a rubber ball and when you watch someone else squeeze a rubber ball. It is the same thing with picking up a cup of coffee, hitting a baseball, or flying a kite. Whether you do it or someone else does, your mirror system activates. In this small way, the mirror system places you inside a stranger’s head.

Unsurprisingly, those who were feeling powerful had far less empathy than those who didn’t. In fact, the more powerless a person felt, the more s/he identified with the person squeezing the stress ball.

While the study was mostly aimed at explaining employer/employee relationships, I think that we can easily take this a step further to gender and political dynamics. Women have traditionally not been in a position of power and have been proven and understood to be the more empathetic sex. Politicians are often criticized for not empathizing with their constituencies; maybe that’s because power has literally changed the way that they think (I’m looking at you, Mr. I-will-close-Guantanamo Obama).

The greater story here is daunting. Science has finally proven that the more power one has, the less one cares about those without power. “Power corrupts” is no longer a trite saying (coined by Lord Acton) but a documented reality—and if power corrupts, then our—or any—governmental structure is doomed to fail. Coincidentally, this study gives an answer to Bleeding Heart Libertarians’ very recent article entitled, “How Power Corrupts.” It’s all human psychology, baby.