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Psychol Sci. 2008 Dec;19(12):1315-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02241.x.

Power, distress, and compassion: turning a blind eye to the suffering of others.

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1
University of Amsterdam, Department of Social Psychology, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. g.a.vankleef@uva.nl

Abstract

Responses to individuals who suffer are a foundation of cooperative communities. On the basis of the approach/inhibition theory of power (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003), we hypothesized that elevated social power is associated with diminished reciprocal emotional responses to another person's suffering (feeling distress at another person's distress) and with diminished complementary emotion (e.g., compassion). In face-to-face conversations, participants disclosed experiences that had caused them suffering. As predicted, participants with a higher sense of power experienced less distress and less compassion and exhibited greater autonomic emotion regulation when confronted with another participant's suffering. Additional analyses revealed that these findings could not be attributed to power-related differences in baseline emotion or decoding accuracy, but were likely shaped by power-related differences in the motivation to affiliate. Implications for theorizing about power and the social functions of emotions are discussed.

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