Wanting to have a positive impact in the world without having power is like wanting to produce electricity without a source of energy. It’s simply impossible. Yet studies have demonstrated holding power makes us more self-absorbed and arrogant—even when we think we are using our power for the purpose of benefitting others. Does this mean that it’s impossible to acquire and wield power without losing one’s moral compass?
Engaging with power for a good purpose still makes us vulnerable to becoming self-focused and hubristic. We can, however, overcome these challenges to accruing power by cultivating empathy.
Neuroscience has demonstrated that our brains are dynamic systems, constantly changing and adapting in response to the environmental stimuli to which we are exposed. Pioneering psychological research on empathy development is consistent with these findings on the plasticity of the brain. It shows that empathy is not a fixed trait that one is either born with or not; it is a skill, a capability that we all can build up and strengthen. Interventions to enhance empathy can be amazingly simple. In the lab, it’s enough to ask people to read a story of someone’s illness and imagine how the disease affected that person’s life, for the reader to feel more empathy not only for the individual featured in the story, but also for all those afflicted by the same condition. And if instead of just reading about someone we get to live their experience more vividly through immersive virtual reality technology, the engrossing simulated environment greatly enhances our empathy for them.
Scientific interventions are hardly the only way to develop empathy. The more embedded you are in someone else’s reality, the deeper the empathy: The manager who works entry-level jobs before continuing to climb up the corporate ladder will appreciate the contributions of front-line personnel and blue-collar workers a lot more than colleagues who leave their offices only for power lunches with clients and investors. The university student from an affluent family who takes a summer job at a fast-food restaurant will know what it means to be at the bottom of a corporate hierarchy, and how tough it is for people to live on a minimum-wage job. The banking executive who volunteers at an inner-city school or a local homeless shelter will think differently about the social role of a financial institution.
What these interventions and experiences tell us is that increasing someone’s empathic accuracy requires asking them to put them- selves in someone else’s shoes. Incredibly, even psychopaths—whose defining traits are impaired empathy and uninhibited egotism—respond to such nudges. Neuropsychologists have shown that asking psychopaths to focus on others’ pain, and to do their best to imagine how they felt, elicits mirrored suffering in their brains similar to that exhibited by non-psychopaths. Empathy nudges work. But sustaining their effects over time and beyond the immediate context in which they are applied is a lot more challenging.
Deep and lasting development of empathy requires more than temporarily seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. It entails sustainably shifting from a focus on the self to an awareness and appreciation of interdependence. Psychologists think of this shift in terms of self-definition: People can view themselves as separate from and independent of others, or they can see themselves as connected to and interdependent with others. Like perspective-taking, this interdependent view of the self can be stimulated with simple interventions, like asking someone to read a story written with independent pronouns (I, mine) but substitute interdependent pronouns (we, ours) instead. The self is malleable, and, unsurprisingly, an interdependent view inspires greater empathy, more cooperation, and a collective orientation.
The development of the self is ultimately about expanding what an individual is aware of and feels connected to and responsible for. We start self-focused and—if our development isn’t otherwise stunted—we evolve toward seeing ourselves as interdependent with something larger: family, community, country, and ultimately humanity and the planet. Our research also shows how a society can cultivate this awareness of interdependence in its citizens, and through the empathy it produces, curb the nefarious effects of power when they emerge and achieve collective prosperity.
Social psychology isn’t alone in believing that empathy rests on the awareness and appreciation of our interdependence. In Buddhist thought, all things are dependent on all other things, and interdependence is at the root of empathy and altruism. The Buddhist path of liberation from self-focus hinges, in part, on the practice of meditation, which helps cultivate the wisdom to see how the things we crave—wealth, fame, power itself—keep us compulsively focused on ourselves. Buddhism holds that training our minds to nonjudgmentally direct our attention to the present moment can help us let go of these destructive cravings, recognize our interdependence, and see the pursuit of the well-being of others as the pathway toward our own.
Sometimes, as we struggle to see through the fog of our self-focus, events much larger than ourselves remind us of and rekindle our empathy. The COVID-19 pandemic helped some to see that the unilateral exercise of individual power is futile and counterproductive. For example, the twenty-seven nations of the European Union came together to coordinate the largest stimulus package ever financed by the EU, to provide economic relief for European countries and sectors hardest hit by the virus. And many more of us have awakened to the truth of scientists’ dire warnings about the boomerang effects of invading and destroying ecosystems and “the need for a more holistic ‘one health’ approach [that] views human, animal, and environmental health as interconnected.”
Life-altering experiences such as the pandemic also make us more aware of our impermanence, which has long been one of the defenses humans put up against the other great danger of power: Hubris.
This article is from Fast Company.