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  • Andres Spokoiny

Arrogance of Philanthropists, Part I

Many people acquire power precisely by having a great capacity to be empathetic, or, at least, to be well-attuned to the emotional realities of others. But then, achieving that power seems to cause a loss of that very capability.


Let’s start with a little exercise. Treat your finger like a pen and write a letter E on your forehead.


Done? Now tell me, did you write the E with its points facing your right—as if you were reading it—or facing your left, so others can read it?

It may depend on how powerful you feel.


According to a 2006 study, if you are in a position of power, you are three times more likely to write the E the way that looks right to you as you write it, and that looks backwards to everybody else. This simple exercise is interesting, because it demands seeing yourself from the perspective of somebody else, from the vantage point of an observer. And the outcome is revealing, because it seems to show that powerful people have more difficulty than others putting themselves in other people’s place.


This fascinating article recently published at the Atlantic explains how, over the last two decades, researchers in both neuroscience and psychology have shown consistently that subjects with power lose a great degree of empathy.


It actually points to a paradox: many people acquire power precisely by having a great capacity to be empathetic, or, at least, to be well-attuned to the emotional realities of others.


But then, achieving that power seems to cause a loss of that very capability. Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley, coined the term “empathy deficit” to refer to that erosion.

The degradation of empathy among the powerful is not purely psychological but biological as well.


Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario discovered that subjects in positions of power show much less of a neural process known as “mirroring”, which is believed to be critical for the development of empathy. “Mirroring” happens in subtle ways. For example, we tend to mimic, subconsciously, the facial expressions of others.


But there’s a hierarchical twist: we are most likely to mimic the facial expressions of those who we consider more powerful than us; we laugh when a powerful person laughs, and frown when they frown. Naturally, a powerful person has fewer opportunities to interact with those of yet higher status than she—and, thus, she has fewer opportunities to mimic others. This may at least partially explain the atrophying of her mirroring response.


Power seems also to limit the activity of the “sympathetic response”. When you observe somebody performing an action, an FMRI machine will show that the neural pathways you would use to perform the same action light up. The research shows that the longer you are in a powerful position, the more your sympathetic response weakens.


In other words, power literally causes brain damage.


In the political world we see very often how, as time goes by, leaders lose touch with their constituents: they become less attuned to their needs, they are convinced of their own infallibility, and they become significantly less adept at considering things from the point of view of others.


British peer, politician, and neurologist Lord David Owen calls it “hubris syndrome”, which has been defined as “a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power that has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years with minimal constraint”. He actually advocates for the condition to be recognized as a mental malady.

We see this in everyday life too. How often have you seen a powerful person being eccentric and idiosyncratic? Probably you can name several of your acquaintances.


Conversely, probably all the powerless people you know are not. Could it be that powerful people are more quirky and idiosyncratic because they are less aware of how their actions are perceived by others? Could it be that their brain has been conditioned simply to care less?

Reading these findings, I can’t help connecting this to our reality as funders.


It may not be delicate to admit it so bluntly, but yes, funders are in a position of great power. Our grants impact the lives of thousands and our grantees depend on us for their survival. We are looked upon as symbols of success and generosity, and we are praised relentlessly.

Much of the current communal system places the funder as the most important figure in the community. Federations create “donor-centric” campaigns and one gala after another celebrates the work of philanthropists. Many funders are likely to suffer the neurological effects of power twofold: they wield power as funders, but they only became funders after first achieving positions of powers in their businesses.


So we philanthropists probably suffer from the same erosion of empathy that Keltner identified. This doesn’t just make us less “nice” to be around and more idiosyncratic. It may also seriously impair our effectiveness as funders.


Philanthropy in particular, like communal leadership in general, is about understanding the needs, pains, concerns, and dreams of other people. That requires huge amounts of the very capacity that we start to lose when we become funders.


To put it another way, the same qualities that made us philanthropists in the first place start eroding as soon as we are propelled into a position of communal power. We become less and less connected with the realities of the people we are trying to serve, and we become less and less permeable to their feedback (in the rare cases when they dare to give real and honest feedback). Little by little, we start believing we are infallible and we react badly to criticism and challenges.


It’s not surprising, then, that we tend to replace empathetic, field-based philanthropy with an aseptic version of strategic funding, conducted from the safety of our board rooms rather than from the trenches, where we could be interacting with real people that benefit or suffer from our funding choices.


The examples abound: campus programs designed by folks who haven’t set foot on a college campus for many decades and have no capacity—or willingness—to understand the actual realities of students; programs to help minorities that don’t take into consideration the cultural and social sensitivities of those minorities; welfare programs designed without consideration for the dignity of the clients; school reform ideas designed without input from teachers, kids, or parents that therefore have no relationship to real classroom situations; etc.


To succeed as funders we need to get much better at understanding and accepting the views of others, especially those who are in positions of less relative power. And to do so, we may need literally to undo, or at least ameliorate, our brain damage.


Next week, I will outline 5 key ways in which philanthropists can avoid this “Hubris Syndrome” to achieve greater good and become better givers. Stay tuned.


This article was published in Philanthropy Daily.

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