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The Power Paradox

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staying-power

Fresh perspectives from a preeminent social psychologist on how we gain influence — and how these new ideas can improve our relationships.

If you’re not familiar with the name Dacher Keltner, you’re probably familiar with his work. His psychological insights helped shape Pixar’s popular 2015 movie Inside Out, as well as Facebook’s emoticons.

A professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, Keltner is the author of several books, including Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. In his latest volume, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, he shares what he’s learned about power relations from decades of studying human emotions.

Instead of conventional Machiavellian notions about power — that it’s seized through coercion, force, and sabotage — Keltner argues that power is not taken at all. It’s given to individuals by others, including their partners, children, coworkers, social groups, and communities, because they’ve served the interests of the greater good.

Q&A

Experience Life | How do you define power?

Dacher Keltner | If you ask typical Americans what power is and who is powerful, they’re likely going to share an image of a billionaire, politician, or military general.

As a psychologist, I’ve seen how power is about more than acquiring money; it’s a factor in every relationship we have. So I define it as the capacity to alter or influence the state of another person or people.

Since power relations are part of our daily lives and relationships — with romantic partners, kids, friends, and coworkers — it means that doing something like sending out a tweet and changing people’s minds is a form of power. If my 5-year-old influences me to give her candy, that’s a form of power.

EL | What are the implications of redefining power in this way?

DK | It’s more empowering. If you start from the assumption that you always have power, you realize you continually influence the world. You always have the chance to either uplift or diminish others.

It changes our ideas about history. Significant social change begins with ordinary people. They weren’t born into wealth and don’t command military battalions. Instead, they’re leading recycling campaigns or transforming their children’s schools.

It affects our face-to-face interactions, too. We tend to think of intimate relationships as being about love and attachment, but we’re often grappling with how we’re giving and getting power. Once we realize that, it can create deeper, more fulfilling, more equitable relationships.

Studying emotions for 20 years has shown me that people like a power balance. When both parties feel they have a voice and influence, and can pursue their interests and aspirations, the relationship is healthier. In intimate partnerships, the sex is better.

So in every relationship it’s important to continually ask, Am I giving my partner, friend, or coworker the chance to have a voice and an opportunity to pursue his or her own desires?

EL | How is power acquired?

DK | The cultural notion that you grab power is largely wrong. You don’t trick people and become powerful. What we see time and again is if you’re serving the interests of others, people will hand over power because you’re good for the group or advancing what I call “the greater good.”

If your fifth grader is making kids at school laugh, playing really well on the playground, and being kind, other kids are going to respect him or her, and your kid will gain friendships and influence.

If you go to your office and offer really good ideas, advocate for other people’s work, and collaborate well, you’re going to have the reputation of advancing the projects of the organization, be seen as having integrity, and rise in the ranks.

Even as a scientist, I’m generating findings. To the extent my ideas are advancing the scientific careers of other people, I will have power in the field. I’ll have influence and attract attention to my work.

EL | What is the power paradox? 

DK | The paradox is that once we get a little bit of power, we often begin to feel we’re above people and do things that stop improving the greater good. We stop using the skills that are the foundation of our power and begin abusing it.

A few things are at play in producing abuses of power. First, when we feel powerful, the world seems filled with rewards and opportunities. We look at social interaction and think, Here are all the people who love me, and here are all the young women or men who might be attracted to me. Regrettably, power makes us see other people through the lens of our own desire, which is bad news because we’re not paying attention to their interests.

Second, studies have shown that when we feel powerful, we’re oblivious to the risks of our behavior. We’re more likely to take a financial risk with somebody else’s money or recommend a course of action that’s not rational.

The regions in the brain’s frontal lobe that help us understand what others are going to experience aren’t activated — the empathy networks shut down.

EL | What are some practical ways to be empathetic?

DK | People who do good things with their power — think Bill Gates or Warren Buffett — tend to have a certain set of principles that give them humility and keep them in check. They tend to be devoted to sharing, so volunteering and giving are opportunities for people to find their greatest power. It also helps them avoid abuses of power.

Another thing we’re beginning to explore is the emotion of awe. Experiencing awe — by spending time in nature, for example — is great because it makes you feel humble, small, and interested in others. (For more, read “Awestruck“.)

Finally, you want to have systems that allow for accountability. If you have a role in allocating money, people need to be able to respond to your decision-making. When those checks aren’t in place, you’re more likely to see abuses of power. When the ratings agencies were no longer holding Wall Street accountable for the products they were creating, we saw the beginnings of the economic collapse.

EL | How have your findings improved your own relationships? 

DK | This research has taught me so much. In my marriage, it’s really important that my wife feels like she gets to do things that matter to her.

With my kids, it’s taught me to not be so authoritarian. When my daughters get into fights, the temptation is to rush in and point out who’s right and who’s wrong. What works better is letting them give voice to what the problems are, say how they hurt each other, and figure out how they can resolve the conflict.

It’s also fundamental to my work. I manage 20 people, and I’ve found the best way to do that is let them guide the work, treat them with respect, and be open to their own stances on what’s the best work they can do.

This originally appeared as “Staying Power” in the January/February issue of Experience Life.

is an Experience Life staff writer.