“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Or should we instead go with:
“With great power comes great responsibility”?
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, or Spiderman? (though, my quick google says Acton really wrote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” – I’m sure some literary nerd would be pleased to correct me. Please please please?)
But, the correct quotation is not what I’m after, after all, I’m a Psychologist, not a Historian. It is the two ideas that each quote encapsules. Power can corrupt – and research on power right now (at least if one reads Jonah Lehrer, or even Keltner, or Sidanius) is very down on power. The powerful are not empathetic, they are hypocritical, they don’t give a shit about the little people. And, certainly, there are plenty of the powerful that fit that bill, at least those that make it onto the first pages of newspapers after groping or raping one too many times, or hoarding a bit too much rent, or just being generally unpleasant.
Personally, I tend to avoid the powerful. But then, I have met extraordinarily successful people. I have met and talked to and worked for very powerful people. And, as one of my old bosses said, my experience is more one of pleasantness, not of nastiness. Surely, my observations, and the papers observations are biased. Power may have many faces.
And, now I find myself with minor power, in a country addicted to unnuanced power-analyses, and a willingness to give power to those that are considered powerless, without asking much in return. Sweden, very egalitarian, very looking out for the weak, and critique of the powerful.
Except, that there is a real limitation to the power I have. With my power comes responsibility, of course. The duty and responsibility weighing much more. In fact, I’m not sure I do have the power to actually perform the duty and responsibility I have.
And, it makes me – question – things. There is implicit in the finding that the powerful may be less quick at taking the others perspective, or being empathetic, that being able to look from other perspectives, or being empathically sensitive is universally good, and the world would be better off if we just were able to do so.
First – I’m not sure if those that think they take the other persons perspective really are doing so, rather than just projecting themselves into that position and asking “what would I feel” – which may at times be dramatically not how that other person really feels or thinks.
Second, empathic sensitivity – feeling what the other feels – is not necessarily always good. Sometimes you need someone that are not in the throes of overwhelming emotions in order to do what is needed. My old advisor cued me in on this, when we were looking at the difference between priming emotions (emotion knowledge) and feeling emotions. And, anecdotally,I also recalled having a therapist once that I felt reacted to what I was talking in a way that made me want to roll my punches – he left after a rather short time, so I figured he figured he wasn’t cut out for the therapist role.
And, would it really be better for a leader to notice (and emotionally subtly respond to) all the emotions of others? I’m thinking again as a lecturer. I sometimes must teach things that the students are not all that fond of (theory of science, especially cognitive science, to therapists come to mind). There are always some students who disagree with what you do, regardless, or are bored with it. You will have to ask people to do things that for various reasons feel unpleasant. Take exams, present in front of a class, come to class, comes to mind. It is a good idea to not be too affected by the one or two students who sleep or look bored throughout the lecture. If there is 50 of them, and one of me, and there is a rainbow of subtle reactions to my lecture from enraptured (ok, let me dream), engaged, bored, sleepy, grumpy, now which one of the other students perspective ought I to take? Or should I take the perspective of my duty and responsibility to teach the subject to the best of my ability?
Obviously, when someone in power gets in their heads that using the help for their sexual gratification without considering consent first is a problem, or other abuses of power, that throw responsibility out the window.
But, I don’t think the ‘empathy’ angle is the angle is what would “cure” this. I don’t even think that is the actual culprit. This is even testable. Who is the more effective leader? Especially of a heterogeneous group.