this is your brain. this is your brain on wealth and power.

Wealth and power don’t just change how you live and your priorities. They also change how your mind works in disconcerting ways.

man in suit covered by smoke

As we were taught by Spiderman’s doomed uncle, with great power comes great responsibility, something comic book superheroes often take to heart when having a crisis of faith in their own abilities and place in the grand scheme of things. But in real life, the wealthy and powerful seem to enjoy shirking responsibility and seem unable to understand why hundreds of millions of people around the world aren’t exactly their greatest fans right now. If that sounds like a profound lack of empathy and self-awareness from people we’d expect to be pretty intelligent to be able to hold on to massive fortunes, you’re right. And there seems to be a scientific reason for it as illustrated by numerous studies into how power and wealth affects the brain.

The short version is that when primed with feelings of power, or actual power, we seem to lose our ability to relate to other humans. We become more hypocritical, judging others more harshly for breaking rules than we would ourselves. We will be even more angered by unfair offers than those without wealth and power, while offering to give up less in return. We’ll have trouble with tasks that require us to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes or see something from other points of view. It’s as if all the mental bandwidth we’d dedicate to trying to maintain our bonds to the rest of society is now put to work elsewhere, usually to help maintain and expand our status and resources.

what happens when you feel like you have power?

In short, we suffer from a severe breakdown of empathy. Of course that happens, social justice activists will tell you, since wealth and power are inherently corrupting, as the popular saying goes. But that’s a bit of a catchy misnomer. Power and wealth actually don’t corrupt by their very existence, although they absolutely can under the right circumstances, especially when we stand to gain real benefits from harming others, and doubly so when we’re removed from the consequences of our actions. According to researchers, quotes about power’s influence by those in position of power are actually more accurate about its influence. Power frees you to do what you really want instead of profoundly changing who you are. Free from considering how others see you, you’re able to do what you want far more readily.

While we may all be corruptible to some extent, those of us without the power to get away with it are going to be less likely to pull the trigger and worry about how others will perceive us once they find out what we did. But those who have the wealth and means to make a lot of money or gain lucrative favors by bending the rules or overlooking a wrongdoing may be less bothered by the same thoughts, ironically while coming down on others who do the same thing and get caught. This doesn’t mean that every powerful person is somehow inherently immoral, just that they’ll be given more chances to do the wrong things and if they’re selfish enough deep down in their core, they’ll feel freer to do it.

how do we keep the powerful empathetic?

So, what does all this mean? When given power, we may find ourselves in a position to abuse it, and given enough rewards feel less social and moral pressure not to, because we’ll be suffering from a deficiency of empathy, less capable of understanding how our actions will affect others, considering our impact only in abstract terms. This is why it’s important to make sure that the powerful are given some dose of humility instead of being raised on a pedestal and sought as omniscient gurus just because they have money and influence. It keeps their empathy circuits in check and reminds them to consider how their actions will be perceived by others.

This wouldn’t take much. Expose them to situations in which they don’t have absolute control. Don’t shy from criticizing their bad choices. Make it poor taste to surround oneself with an army of assistants to handle every aspect of their lives. Actually punish them for real transgressions with massive fines, the kind they’ll absolutely feel in their pocketbooks. Don’t be afraid to regulate them. Any limit that reminds them that they’re still mortals and must play by the same rules as the rest of society should snap them out of their empathy coma.

By allowing the wealthy and powerful to exist almost separately from mundane concerns and implicitly exempt them from laws and rules others must follow, we’re only making them more isolated and less empathetic, and that has profound consequences on global stability and economy. Especially because we’re long past the point when we can keep doing this without harming real people with real problems and real concerns about their future.

# science // power / psychology / sociology / wealth


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