How power hurts your brain

Lord Acton once famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Those sentiments exemplify the reason our founding fathers worked so hard to create a system of checks and balances within our government. It seems people have long known that those in power have a tendency to lose touch with the people below them and to act in ways that can prove counterproductive to the greater good. Perhaps it’s not all their fault though.

As The Atlantic‘s Jerry Useem writes, a recent study found that people who have experienced long stretches of power “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.” It seems, according to neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, that people in positions of power—or even just those remembering an experience in which they felt powerful— experience physiological changes that make them less able to understand what others are going through or view life through a lens other than their own..

To make matters worse, those results remained the same even when participants in the study knew it was going on. Obhi found that asking people to make a conscious effort to see things from another’s perspective made no difference in their ability to do so while remembering a time in which they felt powerful.

So does that mean that all powerful people are destined to become egocentric and disconnected from the concerns of the world around them? Not necessarily. It turns out that the most reliable cure is a healthy dose of humility. Remembering a time in which you did not feel powerful, or even when you felt helpless, can restore much of the brain activity lost while on a power trip.

Of course, that’s been Scripture’s answer for thousands of years. Proverbs, for example, is filled with warnings about the dangers of pride and the importance of humility. We’re told that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and that disgrace accompanies pride while humility results in wisdom (Proverbs 11:2).

Those sentiments should make an even greater impact when we remember that they were uttered by Solomon, a man credited with divine wisdom but also one who allowed the prideful machinations of his heart to lead him down the path to destruction. Let’s face it, anyone who thinks they can handle 700 wives and 300 concubines probably thinks a bit too highly of himself.

If Solomon’s wisdom was not sufficient to overcome the consequences of his pride, it’s a mistake to think ours will be. Fortunately, we serve a God in Jesus whose response to absolute power was to give it up so that he might provide us a path to salvation and restored relationship with the Father (Philippians 2:6–8). Now he calls us to model that humility in our lives as well.

If the lost look at us and see a conceited, arrogant people who think that we’re better than them because we’ve found Jesus, they’re far less likely to desire a relationship with him than if we convey his generosity and love through a humble spirit. That doesn’t mean thinking less of ourselves or denigrating all that the Lord has done and can do through us, but it does mean, as Charles Hodge put it, embracing the truth that “what we have of good is due to the grace of God.”

We serve an amazing God who fashioned us in his image. There’s a lot about who we are of which we should be legitimately proud. The difference between those who serve the Lord well and those who don’t, however, is often the direction in which that pride is directed. Does power and acclaim stop with you or will you direct it back to the Lord? How you answer that question will go a long way towards determining your effectiveness for the kingdom.