I recently read an article about how people who become powerful lose the ability to empathize, recognize emotion in others, and connect with people.
I highly recommend reading the full article here, since it’s fascinating and explains the science of it, but to demonstrate what was being studied and considered, here’s an excerpt:
“Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”
The crazy thing about this particular finding is that effort doesn’t help. This means that even when a person in power tries harder to consciously empathize, mirror, and connect, they can’t.
(This is one of those moments where I celebrate the scientifically-backed downfall of “effort,” since “try harder” seems to be the typical American-minded solution to everything from pulling yourself out of poverty to quitting addictions to losing weight. IMO effort alone is utterly ineffective at best, and catastrophically destructive at worst.)
Luckily this research shows that while being under the influence of power definitely changes the brain, being under the influence of power is actually more of a perception than an objective fact. Meaning, people who feel powerful will experience these brain changes, while someone in the same position who doesn’t feel very powerful, will not.
And here’s where I think this is a relevant and interesting feminist issue:
Men are brought up to notice, acknowledge, pursue, and celebrate their own powerfulness, while women are not.
So if a man is in a top position in his industry (let’s say… a head NBC anchor, or celebrated Hollywood film producer/executive) I have to imagine that he’s more likely to feel powerful, and thus more likely to experience the brain changes that go along with that.
Which might explain why these men in power find it so easy to abuse their power, violate and harass women, and generally treat people as less-than. Perhaps they have simply lost the ability to recognize what other people are feeling, and therefore lost their natural moral compass.
Now let’s make things a little more interesting.
If you are a woman reading this, you already know that women are very likely to smile when someone is making us uncomfortable, right? If you’re a man reading this, it’s called the tend-and-befriend response, or hypersocialization, in which we women recognize that even when we’re being harassed, our best chance of getting to safety is to make our harasser comfortable, by being pleasant and friendly, even if we’re terrified.
Which brings me to how our harassers receive us when we are uncomfortable.
Some new research shows that men who are more likely to harass women are also more likely to rate the uncomfortable smiles of women who are in tend-and-befriend mode as positive, flirtatious, and inviting.
Meaning, men who tend to harass women can’t tell the difference between real flirting, and the uncomfortable smiles of a woman who feels trapped and panicky.
Which is a pretty big deal, no?
The study only shows a correlation rather than a causation (aka maybe men who can’t tell the difference are more likely to harass, or maybe it’s the other way around, we don’t know) but it’s pretty clear that the men doing the most harassing are seeing something a bit different than reality.
Which makes me wonder.
Do the men who are more likely to harass women also feel more powerful?
Perhaps by simply being male, they’ve been brought up under the influence of power and entitlement, even if they don’t hold a title of actual power.
If so, then maybe your everyday sexual harasser has the same brain changes shown in people who feel powerful, and are unable to distinguish emotions in other people, connect to them empathically, or see them as fully human and equal.
This makes sense to me. But as an interesting thought experiment, what if roles were reversed?
If we lived in a culture where women were brought up to feel powerful and entitled while men were taught to be servants, sexual objects, and rewards, would women lose the ability to connect empathically too? Would women end up being the more statistically likely harassers and assaulters?
I wonder (and I’m genuinely curious what you think), but it’s hard to imagine.
And more importantly, where does this leave us, in a world where the vast majority of powerful leadership positions are held by men? Women make up only a teeny tiny fraction of powerful positions like CEO, college president, medical school dean, partners in venture capital firms, executive producers in Hollywood, executive management in tech firms, and senior management positions across the board, just to name a few examples.
Now, I’m not making excuses for any man who harasses or assaults a woman, no matter what his brain scan looks like.
But I do think all this research suggests that we need to be addressing sexism, power dynamics, and gender issues on a huge social scale, rather than a personal one.
A personal scale is one in which we see all these powerful men getting fired for sexual misconduct, and we think “what a scumbag!” and “he should be in jail!!”
This kind of response suggests that these are bad men doing bad things. That these men who keep getting fired were secretly evil monsters. We all want to distance ourselves from these men and say: He’s nothing like me– if I was in power, I would never behave that way!!
This distance makes us feel good, because it reinforces our righteousness and the separation between good and evil.
But this distance is a problem, because the truth is, if you had been brought up to feel powerful, or acquired a feeling of powerfulness through your industry success, your brain would change too. You would find it harder to recognize what other people were feeling, harder to empathize for their struggles, and harder to connect with them as equals.
You might even struggle to recognize the difference between genuine flirtation, and uncomfortable smiles.
This gets a bit complicated though.
I think many of the men who have harassed and coerced me legitimately believed (inaccurately) that I wanted it and liked it. While we can’t let men off the hook for “not knowing what they did was unwelcome or wrong,” I do think we need to recognize that a lot of these sexual misconduct stories coming out lately reflect a bigger social issue than just one bad guy doing one bad thing.
It’s a pattern of men in power disconnecting from the humanity of women, or the humanity of people he sees as beneath him, or both.
It’s the predictable result of men being taught that the world exists for them, and the way his brain will alter his reality to make this feel even truer.
Meaning, maybe a man knows he shouldn’t whip his dick out and start masturbating in front of two girls he lured into his hotel room (for example), but he just… doesn’t quite… care. Maybe because he legitimately can’t tell how uncomfortable they are, and maybe because he simply doesn’t see them as fully human, or equal.
This is how, I imagine, many men genuinely believe a woman will benefit if they tell us to smile on the street. Or send dick pics and really believe we’ll like it. Or harass and lie and cheat and abuse their power in every way.
Because the people on the other side of these decisions aren’t really “people” to them.
I want to be very clear: these men who are being publicly called out and punished right now must be publicly called out and punished, because we need other men in power to be fucking nervous.
We need there to be a socially understood rule that there will be consequences for your behaviors, and that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.
But the reason we need this to happen isn’t so that the secretly-evil men don’t get away with doing evil things.
It’s so that all of us can start recognizing where this behavior comes from, and be more realistic about solving it.
For example, if a man has continuously demonstrated how deeply under the influence of power he is, it would be foolish to think he wouldn’t be a sociopathic narcissist with no regard for other people, if we vote him into office.
If we all understood the power paradox a bit better, we might be able to recognize more quickly who would make a good candidate for office (or CEO, executive producer, senior management, etc) and who absolutely, positively, would not.
Also, we need an absolute fuckton more women in leadership positions.
Yours in fire,
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