A recent podcast of the program Hidden Brain, interviewed Dacher Keltner, the director of UC Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab. He spoke about some of the interesting scientific studies in how people interact with each other.
When looking at how people in social settings gain power, studies find something that might seem counter intuitive. If we think about power as being able to dominate by scheming and maneuvering people into positions of disadvantage, the people who display altruism, kindness, and social intelligence, these are the people who gain power and respect from their peers.
But there is a catch. Once these people become powerful, their power tends to undermine the very qualities that help them get there in the first place. Dr. Keltner says, “There is something about the seduction of power that makes you lose site of ethics and other people’s interest.”
Twenty years of study on thousands of people has shown that any group of people, when first brought together, quickly evolves into ranking by social power. Often times, those who are boisterous and bullying start out grabbing attention, but over time they start to lose power and never gain the social position that they are seeking
There is something about the seduction of power that makes you lose site of ethics and other people’s interest.Meanwhile those who listen to others, who shows empathy and compassion, rise in the esteem and the ranking of their peers. We support those who listen to us, show us compassion and understanding, and are respectful of us and our ideas. We resist those who try to dominate us and who try to make us do things their way with little or no regard for our thoughts of feelings.
But studies also show that time and again, those who perceive themselves a being powerful, of being of a higher status or of in some way being superior to others, loose the characteristics that got them to power in the first place.
In one interesting study he described, a group is asked to list and describe people who they see as leaders; leaders in business, in the community, or in the nation. They are then given a series of photographs of people showing subtle signs of emotion, a slight smile for instance, or a downward glance. The subjects are asked to guess what emotion the person is feeling.
We dream about all of the good we would do if we ever were to win a lottery or receive an unexpected inheritance. But what have we done in the mean time?Later, this same group is invited back and they discuss the poor, the homeless, those less fortunate than themselves. The same photos from before are shuffled and shown to them again. This time, the test groups are much less able to detect the emotions. This hold true regardless of the order in which the tests are given.
There are dozens of other studies more sophisticated than the example, but they all support the idea that we are much less empathetic to those we feel are inferior to us.
God would have us have compassion for all of our brothers, but especially those who are hurting and those with special needs. (2 Cor 1:3-4, Titus 3:14)) But what if the blessings that God bestows on us makes it more difficult to have a loving heart. We all like to think that that certainly wouldn’t happen to us. We are loving and compassionate people. We dream about all of the good we would do if we ever were to win a lottery or receive an unexpected inheritance.
But what have we done in the mean time? God has certainly shown us blessings and favor. Are we holding back, waiting for that big infusion of cash? Do we say that we just don’t have the means right now, but when we get a bit ahead, we will make up for it? Are we comforting ourselves with the few times we have actually helped others? Looking at those times when we have gotten a bit ahead, did we show God an extra thank you?
It just might be possible that God with perfect knowledge our hearts, has withheld His blessings from us… for our own benefit.
Let us pray that God enter our heart and guide us in the way He would have us go. Let us further pray that when God is guiding us in His ways, we willfully follow.