How Power Makes You Selfish

Power tends to corrupt and ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

So goes the famous quote of British historian, politican and writer Lord John Dalberg-Acton.

In this recent video, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explains that the frontal cortex of the brain is the area in which we detect other people’s pain. He shows how damage to the frontal lobe, limits empathy which in turn incites impulsivity, anger and disconnectedness.

In short, one can acquire sociopathy.

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The interesting twist is that giving people a little bit of power, creates the same affect on the brain as trauma. People doused with sudden power, lose touch, begin to act on whims and imulses and to fail to understand what others care and think.

It gives clarity to the story that a high proportion of CEOs show sociopathic tendencies.

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So what do we do?

The story cuts close to home when similar group studies show that the power differential created by socio-economic status will will create negative behaviour – dominance, entitlement and disregard.

What is curious, is that similar groups may champion a story or film about a disabled, foreign or poor protagonist.

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Why are we so schizophrenic?

Why do we marginalise those different to us at a party or in the workplace, but love and adore stories about mentally ill patients, artists suffering alzheimers, poor migrants and so forth?


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Is it simply a matter of stories and art, building neural pathways for us that need acting on?

A recent post, Mean Tweets, observed how bullying phrases can be turned into comedy gold by the simple act of reframing. The act of retelling creates space for objectivity and in turn humour, which builds empathy. This is art.

So art is redemptive and healing ? Art therapist believe so. I concur.

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If power negatively affects the frontal cortex in the same way that brain trauma does, stories and art can rebuild neural pathways and strengthen empathy.

I belive we all need more stories.

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One thought on “How Power Makes You Selfish

  1. Pingback: Does belief shape space and time? | Bear Skin

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