Dacher Keltner's 'The Power Paradox' dishes the details
on its uses and abuses
By Lou Fancher
Science proves that empathetic sharing -- not Machiavellian shortcuts -- is the true path to power.
Or so posits Berkeley author Dacher Keltner in his new book, "The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence" (Penguin Press, $26, 208 pages).
Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley and director of its Greater Good Science Center, says his purpose in writing the book is to get the message out that enduring power is found in advancing the greater good. His hope is that the science will inspire virtuous acts.
Keltner, 54, is recognized for broad-ranging social science research that informs his previous books, "Born to Be Good" and "The Compassionate Instinct." His expertise has contributed to pop culture in the development of Facebook emojis and the Pixar film "Inside Out" and assisted global corporations such as Google through workshops, presentations and other applications.
"Four years ago, our work on social class and power got a lot of attention. I thought it was time to put it into a narrative. People were shedding their illusions about upper mobility and were going, 'I'm gonna take on power,'" says Keltner.
More than two decades of research is behind the book, but Keltner virtually sprinted through the first draft in one year, only to have it torn to shreds by his editor, who found it lacking in focus. Three years of "getting up daily and doing the tough stuff" and six months of "hardball honing" followed, and Keltner wound up with the paradox of his title.
Power, he writes, is the ability to influence other people. History shows that up until the 21st century, it was grabbed by Machiavellian means. But since 2000, Keltner argues, power has been in a state of flux, no longer taken by force but instead given by society to groups and individuals who contribute to the collective good. The paradox is that the very same assertive, make-change impulse that necessarily fuels a rise to power, if left unchecked, will cause its downfall. In other words, a hero trips on his or her own banana peel. In Keltner's words, "... having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths."
The consequences, outlined in his slim volume and backed by the studies he references, are severe. Due to their hubris, powerful people, even the charismatic ones, naturally -- but not necessarily inevitably -- descend into greed, swearing, lying, sexual affairs and other unethical behavior. The powerless population, meanwhile, suffers poor physical and mental health, reduced innovation, lower academic performance and increased environmental hazards, among other consequences.
Science supporting Keltner's positions include a study on scans of the parietal cortex in the brains of children raised in poverty that show the area that enables language, planning and other functions is stunted. Other studies reveal that the release of cortisol, which can be triggered even by encountering contempt from a stranger, engenders "sickness behaviors" that include sleeplessness, higher heart rate and blood pressure, leading to cardiovascular and other complications. Obesity, diabetes, back pain and other chronic health concerns can also be medical manifestations of powerlessness.
Keltner has gone beyond physiology and psychology to study power as it is represented in literature, history, and various world cultures. Across the spectrum, studies show that gossip, shaming and ostracism are the vital social "seat belts" used to restrain people who misuse power and, in their positive application, are employed to elevate people who contribute to a group's greater good.
But Keltner stumbled upon a contradiction when he considered "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. "It's a condemnation of a little village's obsession with reputation, and I was saying the opposite, that reputation keeps people acting ethically and morally," he notes. "That was interesting. A part of inquiry is encountering contrary arguments." Sometimes, what looks like counter evidence, he suggests, is not. "It's humbling watching (presidential candidate) Donald Trump. He's a walking textbook example of all the abuses of power. He's the counterpoint to my thesis, but it's a volatile time. In the end, his abuses of power will be his undoing."
Keltner, who has also identifed errant driving as an abuse of power, was reminded by a recent incident that even a power expert such as himself is subject to the paradox. "I was feeling proud of myself, writing this great book, getting along with my daughter and her friend," he recalls. "I pulled out and ran right over her best friend's foot. And here I was, writing about arrogant driving."
Unfortunately, Keltner says there's no predictor or warning signal when positive power turns sour. "We don't have that, and I wish we did. That would be spectacular." In the meantime, what we do have is found in the book's epilogue: "A Fivefold Path to Power." Keltner's five principles are rooted in science and are ideas that he says "predate religion and are the foundation of cooperative societies." Pursuing self- awareness, practicing humility, acting respectfully, seeking to give and selecting a collective greater good cause for purposeful action will safeguard most individuals and groups from the abuse of power. His book, therefore, is an "ethical statement that primes all people, when they have opportunities for power, to think of those in need."