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Think George W. Bush needs to walk a mile in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s shoes? According to a recent study in the journal Psychological Science, he may not be able to. Researchers found that possessing power dramatically hinders the ability to understand the perspectives of others. In other words, the world’s most powerful players may be unable ...

Think George W. Bush needs to walk a mile in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s shoes? According to a recent study in the journal Psychological Science, he may not be able to. Researchers found that possessing power dramatically hinders the ability to understand the perspectives of others. In other words, the world’s most powerful players may be unable to comprehend the motivations of someone, say, building a weapons program, testing a nuclear bomb, or torpedoing trade talks.

The study concludes that individuals with power are both less likely to adopt the perspective of others and less able to take into account others’ lack of privileged information. In one exercise, volunteers were asked to draw an "E" on their foreheads, an established (and cocktail party-safe) method of determining perspective. High-powered participants were nearly three times more likely to draw the letter in a self-oriented direction — it appeared backward for those gazing at their foreheads — than other participants. "[The powerful] often don’t anticipate what someone else will understand," says Adam Galinsky, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and an author of the study.

It’s not as if the powerful lack an empathy gene. Climbing up the political ranks demands a keen knack for understanding how others see the world. "To get power, you have to take the perspective of the people above you and adjust your behavior to get the rewards they offer," says Galinsky. "Once in power, it’s ironic that this capacity gets lost." But then, doesn’t power corrupt? Absolutely.

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