This is really interesting but I have a follow-on study I want someone to do, or at least redo this one and control for.
In our study, we induced a set of participants to temporarily feel varying levels of power by asking them to write a brief essay about a moment in their lives. Some wrote about a time when they felt powerful and in charge, while others wrote about a time when they felt powerless and subordinate to others. The selection process was random, so that each participant had an equal chance of being powerful or powerless.
The outcome of the original study showed that being in a position of power reduces empathy. But when I read their instruction, particularly the negative side “a time when they felt powerless” I immediately thought of a time when I was UTTERLY enraged and not at ALL empathetic. It was about midnight and our neighbour was having a party. Through some perverse architectural delusion, our bedroom is next to his living room. The music was SO LOUD, y’all. And I fumed and ranted and could! not! sleep! (probably due as much to my own fury as to the actual noise level). After attempting to phone him to ask him to turn the music down three times, I eventually got up, got dressed, knocked on his door (very aggressively) and laid into him.
I avoided talking to him for the next three years. Wouldn’t make eye contact. He’s a good friend now.
But here’s the thing. The thing that drives me MOST into a rage, and reduces my empathy intensely is feeling powerless. When I have options, choices (i.e. power) I’m good. I’m chill. I let things roll off my back and don’t escalate. When ‘trapped’, I’m the normally docile animal backed into the corner and fighting for my survival. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m powerless.”
So I’m curious about that study. Are there different types of power that aren’t accounted for? Maybe ‘power over others’ is different than ‘power over your own environment’. Maybe people with low self-esteem, history of depression, or other factors react the opposite way from these ‘leaders’. I’m actually most open and empathetic when I personally feel safe and in control.
I’m not even remotely trying to suggest that this study has reached an invalid conclusion – its methodology is sound, it makes a lot of sense, and explains a lot about the state of our society right now. But it doesn’t describe my own lived experience which makes me wonder where the difference lies and curious to figure it out.