The Brain Science of Ambition

Yesterday, after we published Gerardo’s article on theories of intelligence, a fascinating article appeared on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog:

Ambition… Virtue or Vice?

This article was written by ‘RJS’ who is a frequent contributor on the Jesus Creed website. RJS is a sincere Christian, a woman, an accomplished scientist, and a faculty member at a secular university. She writes primarily about the relationship between faith and science and occasionally about the role of women in the church.

In this article, she discusses what brain imaging technology (fMRI) has revealed about some of the Seven Deadly Sins. She reports that lust, especially in males, “sets nearly the whole brain buzzing,” producing a biochemical response that can be very addicting and destructive. Envy produces patterns of brain activity that reflect ‘a kind of social pain,’ and when the object of envy (the person who incites it) experiences a downfall, the response is a kind of pleasure which is well described by the German word schadenfreude.

Then she goes on to discuss the deadliest of the deadly sins, which is pride. Brain scans have shown that it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up with pride than to think about ourselves critically in sober self-examination. And, even more interestingly, “the experiments demonstrate that righteous humility, deliberate self depreciation, is but arrogance and pride in disguise.”

The heart of RJS’s article is a discussion of how we view ambition. Ambition is usually regarded as a good thing. We treat it as a virtue in the workplace, in academia, and in the evangelical church. We admire people who set large goals and strive to achieve them. But ambition is closely related to greed and pride. Ambition can wreak havoc on personal relationships and community life, even more so than sexual immorality. She concludes that, although ambition may sometimes produce results that seem beneficial (e.g., church growth), it is like ‘playing with fire’ because it so easily turns into a poorly disguised effort to gain ‘influence and power hidden behind a veneer of righteous humility.’

What do you all think about this?


  1. GerardoR

    Wow, interesting article. I was actually going to comment on some of those fMRI articles later in the psychology meets religion series so it is nice that you saved me the trouble. =)

    Ambition is definately something we should be watchful for. I know I can sometimes become prideful in my desire to defend Christianity. And as JohnY knows, I often become quite arrogant.  

    However, I think it is important never to throw out the baby with the bath water. Just because the devil  poisons  our good and natural desires, doesnt mean we deny them, call them outdated, or caution people about the dangers of  practicing  them. One of the things G.K. Chesterton pointed out was that the world was too humble to receive heaven. I think what he meant by that is that the world has taken a good virtue and freed it from it’s borders and so you have  arrogant  people trying to exercise false humility. But just because there is such a thing as false humility doesnt mean that humility is false. It is like sex. Our society perverts sex and many of us Christians turn the other way and become puritans!

    One of the big things I take away from this article is that the devil tries to scaffold what is already there. My biggest concern is when you combine the virtues with this american “I did it my way kind of attitude.” I feel like you end up getting 1. liberal catholics (what we like to call cafeteria catholics)  2. liberal protestants   3. An increase denominational branches and independent churches that while orthodox, will slowly spin things in a particular angle.

    I think this “I did it my way” kind of attitude is one of the most pervasive problems in all of Christiandome.

  2. Joshua Brinkerhoff

    One verse comes to mind from 1 Thes 4:11-12 “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”