Too powerful to feel your pain?

Recent evidence from the field of neuroscience sheds new light on the Torah's teachings about power and empathy. A story featured on National Public Radio entitled, "When Power Goes To Your Head, It May Shut Out Your Heart," describes research conducted by experts at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada on the ability of people to be empathic. Though the science is far more complicated than I am able to comprehend fully or evaluate critically, there appears to be evidence to suggest that empathy, that is the ability to put oneself in the place of another, is inversely related to the holding of power. To quote directly from the report, "Power fundamentally changes how the brain operates … feeling powerless boosted" people's ability to empathize. And conversely "when people felt power, they … have more trouble getting inside another person's head … power diminishes all varieties of empathy." (

The connection between powerlessness and empathy represents an underlying premise for much of the Torah's ethical worldview. On four separate occasions, the Torah commands kindness to the stranger and each time the rationale for doing so is linked to the Israelite enslavement in Egypt. Consider but two examples:

  • You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 23:9).
  • You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:19).

It is significant that these injunctions appear in the narrative after the Israelites are freed from slavery; at precisely the time they might begin to exercise power of their own. According to the Torah's calculus, powerlessness sensitizes us to the plights of others; it heightens our ability to feel compassion. The lack of power (i.e. slavery) is a humbling experience. And with humility comes a greater willingness to feel for those who also lack power (in this case, the stranger).

But as the scientific research has now established, the acquisition of power changes us. Powerful people have a difficult time relating to the needs and experiences of others. Sometimes the disconnection is based on economic factors. As power is frequently linked to affluence, individuals with money are often unable to put themselves in the position of those who struggle to make ends meet. This matter, however, is not limited to economics. Supervisors cannot relate to their direct reports. The famous and accomplished forget the challenges faced by ones just starting out. Individuals accustomed to getting their way find it difficult to understand the needs of others who strive to be taken seriously. The point is not that powerful people are evil, or that they lack a moral compass. But the acquisition and retention of power diminishes our ability to be empathic.

At its worst this means that people with power, as I suggested in a prior posting, are predisposed to abuse the perks that accompany their position. We who lead, therefore, are duty bound to reflect seriously upon ways in which we may be more susceptible to abusing our office than if we held a different post.

Reflection, however, while necessary, is hardly sufficient. The task at hand is to create systemic protections designed to assure that such abuses are mitigated. If empathy is a natural casualty of power, then those in power must be taught to compensate for their own proclivities. According to a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, Dacher Keltner, who studied the findings from Wilfrid Laurier, this can, in fact, be done. An emerging field of research, he says, suggests that, "powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back to their compassionate selves."

The Torah's approach to this issue is instructive. The book of Deuteronomy imposes a series of restrictions on the king, including the number of wives he may have and the amount of gold and silver he is eligible to amass. This section of the Torah concludes with the following, "When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this teaching (Torah) written for him … Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life … Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows… (Deut. 17:18-20)." The text recognizes that at the apogee of power the king is least likely to be empathic. For this reason, it requires him to self-correct and to engage in behavior ("read in it daily") designed specifically to facilitate an increased sense of compassion and understanding.  

The importance of this new neuroscience research is that it affirms what ethicists have long believed to be true. Now that this link between power and low levels of empathy has been documented, each of us who holds power, whether in the office, in our communal organizations, or elsewhere must work hard to pursue appropriate counterbalances.

Jewish leadership expert Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, on Judaism, leaders, and leadership.... Read More

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