Why Power Corrupts Us

Power tends to corrupt us. So do privilege and status.

Of course, we like to believe that it happens only to other people. We could never be corrupted by power and privilege. We’re too good for that.

Unfortunately, however, we’re not too good for that. Almost anyone can be corrupted.

But did you ever think about why it’s true?

Like many truths about life, the answer is hiding in plain sight.

When we want something, we feel our emotion directly. It’s vivid and real to us. The same applies when we’re happy or hurt.

But when someone else wants something, is happy or hurt, we don’t feel their emotion directly. We might know about it, but only abstractly. It doesn’t seem real to us.

As a result, we’re biased in favor of what we know for sure: i.e., what we want. As for the happiness of other people, we carelessly ignore what doesn’t seem real.

Similarly, when good things happen to us, we assume it’s because of our own efforts. When bad things happen to us, we assume it’s because of bad luck or unfairness. We know first-hand how hard we’ve worked and how many obstacles we had to overcome. We ignore the advantages and the opened doors that helped us to do it.

When good things happen to other people, we think they were lucky. When bad things happen to them, it’s because they didn’t work hard or because they were bad people. We never see the disadvantages and the closed doors that thwarted their efforts. Maybe they could have achieved just as much we did, or maybe not: we’ll never know.

There’s no way to make life completely fair. We can make it fair-er, but social perfection is out of our reach.

We all come into this world with advantages and disadvantages. As the years go by and our lives progress, we get some lucky breaks and some unlucky ones.

As a general principle, that’s true of everyone. It’s not something we can control.

What we can control is what we do about it:

  • We can face life with courage and serenity.
  • We can look for the good in every situation.
  • We can work hard, but accept that we won’t always win.
  • We can remember that other people’s happiness counts.
  • We can trust in the essential goodness of the universe.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why Power Corrupts Us

  1. Jim Grey says:

    And when we have power, we can choose to lean into our empathy. It will get us the closest to feeling the otherwise abstract emotions of others.

    Liked by 1 person

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