Hierarchical relations between social groups are influenced by structural and interpersonal forces that reify or dismantle inequality. Here, I review two categories of emotional antecedents to hierarchy maintenance – empathic and counter-empathic emotions – which directly impact the cooperative or competitive nature of intergroup relations. Empathy is the ability to understand and experience the assumed emotional states of other people while counter-empathy is the ability to understand but experience the opposite assumed emotional states of others. Feeling empathy is affiliative, facilitating group cooperation and social interconnectedness. In contrast, counter-empathy is disaffiliative, facilitating social domination and competition. Asymmetric power hierarchies between groups becomes perpetuated when people affiliate and thus experience empathy towards groups that are at the top of the hierarchy, as well as when people disaffiliate and experience counter-empathy towards groups at the bottom. In contrast, hierarchical relationships become attenuated when people affiliate with those at the bottom of the hierarchy or disaffiliate with those at the top. In this way, the hierarchy attenuating or maintaining consequences of empathy and counter-empathy depend on the target groups’ positionality within the hierarchy, suggesting the importance of contextual power dynamics in understanding the implications of social emotions.