Power, promotion, and prosperity are inherent human desires. However, as we climb the social ladder, we become less aware, less empathetic, and less sensitive to those around us. This isn’t merely a popular social theory; the negative relationship between power and interpersonal sensitivity has been tested scientifically.

A recent study conducted by Dr. Michael Inzlicht, a professor at the Department of Psychology at UTSC, and his colleagues investigates the effects of power on motor resonance.

Motor resonance is the activation of neural circuits associated with an action while observing the execution of the same action by another person. 

“If I observe someone else engage in an action, it’s adaptive for my brain to also engage similar brain areas as those actions themselves require. And by having this process, I may be better able to understand those actions; I may be better able to predict the outcome of others’ actions in other people and maybe respond appropriately,” says Inzlicht. He refers to motor resonance as a form of “mind reading,” in which a person mentally stimulates the actions of others.  

A total of 45 participants were randomly assigned into separate groups that underwent high-, neutral-, or low-power priming. High- and low-power participants wrote an essay on a particular incident in which they either had or lacked power over someone else, while neutral participants were told to recall what they did yesterday. 

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that high-power participants exhibited lower levels of motor resonance while low-power participants demonstrated higher levels of resonance. According to the study, “These differences suggest that decreased motor resonance to others’ actions might be one of the neural mechanisms underlying power-induced asymmetries in processing our social interaction partners.”

Throughout the years, many researchers have focused on the psychological impact of power. Studies have found that high-power individuals are able to focus by ignoring peripheral information; while this improves task-related performance, it negatively affects others in a social setting. Other studies revealed that having power and control over resources negatively influences the ability to process individuating information. In contrast, those who rely on others for resources pay close attention to other people, especially to the powerful. There is also scientific evidence indicating that high socioeconomic status corresponds to low empathic accuracy. 

Creating awareness about the psychological impact of power on the brain can minimize the disparity between the powerful and powerless. According to Inzlicht, everyone has the mental apparatus needed for empathy and interpersonal sensitivity; he believes that the ability to empathize is dependent on motivation. Therefore, understanding the scientific explanation for power-induced asymmetries in social input may motivate people to reduce social inequity. 

This brain study is one of the first to explore the effect of power asymmetry on empathy. Scientists recommend that the experiment be repeated with a larger pool of participants to obtain a replicable and more general result. 

In addition, further research will be needed to determine the mechanisms through which power affects motor resonance.

Citation: Hogeveen, J., Inzlicht M., & Sukhvinder, S.O. (2014). Power changes how the brain responds to others. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 755–762

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