How Power Erodes Empathy, And The Steps We Can Take To Rebuild It

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Two men hold their interlaced hands in the air as they march with other members and allies of the LGBTQ community to the White House as part of the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements on June 13, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Two men hold their interlaced hands in the air as they march with other members and allies of the LGBTQ community to the White House as part of the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements on June 13, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police more than a month ago inspired a movement demanding systemic change and recognition of the overt and covert racism targeting Black and Brown Americans.

Activists are calling for changes in policing, education and statues and symbols of the Confederacy and white supremacy. But why are people suddenly paying attention to these injustices now?

According to "The War For Kindness" author and Stanford University psychology professor Jamil Zaki, it has to do with empathy. He says empathy is like a muscle, and if it’s not used, it can atrophy.

“We tend to think of a lot of features of our inner lives, like how outgoing we are or how empathic we are as just something that will never change, something that you either have or you don't,” Zaki says. “But it turns out that empathy is like a skill. It's like a muscle. We can practice it like any other skill and get better at connecting with people.”

Empathy and power have an inverse relationship, Zaki says. The more powerful people are, the less likely they are to have empathy because they're less likely to need other people.

People who come from a lower socioeconomic status or underrepresented backgrounds face disadvantages and vulnerabilities that “make it obvious how much people need each other,” he says. “As a result, people who are lower in status and power tend to practice or work on their ability to understand other people and get better at it.”

By contrast, people with a lot of power are less inclined to focus on the plight of others because in doing so, they realize that they are benefitting from the systems that cause others harm, Zaki says.

“When someone feels that they are the culprit for the harm of somebody else, that's a threat to them. We want to view ourselves as good people,” he says. “And when you're forced to see yourself as a perpetrator or as part of a group of perpetrators, that damages your ability to continue seeing yourself as good.”

Interview Highlights 

On how psychologists define empathy 

“Empathy as psychologists see it is an umbrella term for multiple ways we connect with other people's emotions, including at least three things. One is sort of catching. We're sharing what other people feel. A second is trying to understand what they feel and why, which we would call cognitive empathy. And a third is feeling concern for what other people are going through and a desire for them to feel better, which is what we would call compassion or empathic concern. And all three of these can change depending on our experiences, practices and habits.”

On why scientists say people with more power are less empathetic

“People with relative power might be less inclined to realize that they need other people, and therefore less inclined to work on understanding them, and that pops out in all sorts of different ways. So [Yale University social psychologist Michael Kraus] and his colleagues have found that people who are high versus low in power and status are less likely to be able to understand other people's emotions. Their heart rates don't match up with other people. When they're in conversation with a stranger, they're more likely to look disinterested, for instance, not making eye contact, and they report lower compassion for the suffering of other people.

“Based on the research that in essence, people who are lower in status just realize that the skill of connecting with others will be very important for them to make it, because oftentimes they don't know if they have the resources to make it on their own. And so it's that recognition of the need for others that drives us to practice something like empathy, which in turn builds that muscle, builds that skill. And that's one of the sad things, is that people who have a lot of privilege could make a difference. They can affect lots of people with their words and actions. And yet, it's these very people who often have blind spots to the experiences of the folks who they could help the most.”

“... They strive for any means through which they can recover their sense of being a good person. And unfortunately, one of the most effective ways to do that is to blame victims or to dehumanize them. There's a really dramatic example of this. My colleague [Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura] studied in executioners and other death workers, and what they found is that people who were responsible for executing folks were more likely to dehumanize those prisoners and the level of dehumanization tracked how involved in the prisoner's death somebody was. The idea here is that when empathy threatens us, we might purposefully turn it down. So in one set of studies, psychologists reminded white Americans about the slaughter of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans. And in response to this, white Americans tended to dehumanize Native Americans or view them as less capable of experiencing the full range of human emotion.”

On why and how anyone can rebuild their sense of empathy

“One clear way of doing this is by just practicing on a regular basis, taking the perspective of others. Research from [Columbia University social psychologist Adam Galinsky], for instance, has found that when people who are in positions of power do regular perspective-taking exercises, they're more open to justice. So oftentimes in settings like conflict resolution, the idea is let's have each party have equal time. But it turns out that there's a more powerful way to do perspective-taking when there are preexisting imbalances of power, because people in disadvantaged positions tend to already know a lot about the perspective of those in power. In our case, sort of a wealthy white male perspective.

“I think one especially important way to think of now is by diversifying the voices that we have in our life and in our culture. I think right now, thanks in large part to the work of activists and in particular work within the Black community, a lot of people who have relative privilege have opened their eyes more so, as you said, than during previous movements, even four or five years ago.

“Now, one thing about empathy that's tricky is that it's hard to count on it to last. And the problems that we're facing as a culture aren't just problems of empathy. They're problems of structural racism and inequity. But one thing that I think we can do is use the empathic momentum we have to make sure that we're creating policies that put Black and Brown voices in positions of leadership and in high-profile positions in our culture, because one way to practice empathy is to hear from people who are different from you on a regular basis.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 9, 2020.


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