What Really Gives Us Power and Influence? It's Not What We're Led to Believe

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence by Dacher Keltner (Penguin Press, 2016): 

Life is made up of patterns. Patterns of eating, thirst, sleep, and fight-or-flight are crucial to our individual survival; patterns of courtship, sex, attachment, conflict, play, creativity, family life, and collaboration are crucial to our collective survival. Wisdom is our ability to perceive these patterns and to shape them into coherent chapters within the longer narrative of our lives.

There is a pattern of social living that makes up our daily interactions and shapes what our lives will, in the end, amount to. It has profound implications for whether you will have a sexual affair, break the law, suffer from panic attacks, be leveled by depression, die early due to a chronic illness, or find purpose in life and bring it to fruition. This pattern kept appearing in scientific studies I’ve conducted over these past twenty years. It’s called the power paradox.

The power paradox is this: we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.

How we handle the power paradox guides our personal and work lives and determines, ultimately, how happy we and the people we care about will be. It determines our empathy, generosity, civility, innovation, intellectual rigor, and the collaborative strength of our communities and social networks. Its ripple effects shape the patterns that make up our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, as well as the broader patterns of social organization that define societies and our current political struggles: sexual violence; bias and discrimination against blacks, Asians, Latinos, and gays; and systemic poverty and inequality. Handling the power paradox well is fundamental to the health of our society.

Twenty years ago, when I began the studies that uncovered the power paradox, I confronted the question: what is power? The first surprise that my scientific inquiry produced was this: our culture’s understanding of power has been deeply and enduringly shaped by one person—NiccoloÌ€ Machiavelli—and his powerful sixteenth-century book The Prince. In that book the Florentine author argued that power is, in its essence, about force, fraud, ruthlessness, and strategic violence. Following Machiavelli, the widespread tendency has been to think of power as involving extraordinary acts of coercive force. Power was what the great dictators wielded; power was embodied in generals making decisive moves on battlefields, businessmen initiating hostile takeovers, coworkers sacrificing colleagues to advance their own careers, and bullies on the middle-school playground tormenting smaller kids. But this view of power fails upon careful scrutiny today. It cannot make sense of many important changes in human history: the abolition of slavery, the toppling of dictators, the ending of apartheid, and the rise of the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements, to name just a few. It cannot make sense of the great social changes brought about by medical advances, social media, new laws protecting the less powerful, great films, the birth control pill, radical paintings and novels, and scientific discoveries. Perhaps most critically, thinking of power as coercive force and fraud blinds us to its pervasiveness in our daily lives and the fact that it shapes our every interaction, from those between parents and children to those between work colleagues.

Power Is About Making a Difference in the World

Society has changed dramatically since Machiavelli’s Renaissance Florence in ways that require us to move beyond outdated notions of power. We will be more poised to outsmart the power paradox if we broaden our thinking and define power as the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks.

This new definition of power reveals that it is not something limited to rare individuals in dramatic moments of their highly visible lives—to malevolent dictators, high-profile politicians, or the jet-setting rich and famous; nor does it exist solely in boardrooms, on battlefields, or on the U.S. Senate floor. Instead, power defines the waking life of every human being. It is found not only in extraordinary acts but also in quotidian acts, indeed in every interaction and every relationship, be it an attempt to get a two-year-old to eat green vegetables or to inspire a stubborn colleague to do her best work. It lies in providing an opportunity to someone, or asking a friend the right question to stir creative thought, or calming a colleague’s rattled nerves, or directing resources to a young person trying to make it in society. Power dynamics, patterns of mutual influence, define the ongoing interactions between fetus and mother, infant and parent, between romantic partners, childhood friends, teens, people at work, and groups in conflict. Power is the medium through which we relate to one another. Power is about making a difference in the world by influencing others.

Power Is Given to Us by Others 

How do we gain power—the capacity to make a difference in the world? The old Machiavellian philosophy of power treated it as something that is grabbed. Narratives of power grabs make for great literature and art—Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Godfather, and, more recently, House of Cards. It is captivating to read about cunning acts of manipulation and the bloody elimination of rivals and allies. But they are more the stuff of fiction and the past than about how people enact power in the twenty-first century.

Instead, a new wave of thinking about power reveals that it is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks. Our power is granted to us by others. This is true at work, in social organizations of different kinds, and in our friendships, romantic partnerships, and families.

In one of the central developments of hominid evolution, vertical hierarchies (seen today among our primate relatives, the great apes) gave way to more horizontal patterns of social organization. The hunter-gatherers who are still around today live in the small groups that were typical of the conditions of human evolution. Within these conditions, we became a hypersocial species, raising profoundly vulnerable offspring, gathering food, creating shelter, and defending ourselves collaboratively and in small groups. Hierarchies were still present as we evolved, but given our hypersociality, individuals could band together in patterns of alliances and readily constrain those who might abuse power. As a result, groups gained the capacity to grant power to those who advanced the greater good rather than to coercive, forceful Machiavellians.

Groups give power continually to individuals in patterns of social behavior that often mystify or are objects of scorn and derision. Like it or not, our species is reputation mad—just look at the astonishing growth of Facebook, the enduring fascination with the gossipy characters in Jane Austen novels, and industries that have sprouted up around the burnishing of reputations. The pursuit of a good reputation is central to social life. We may exhort young people to not worry about their reputations, to privilege authentic self-expression no matter what others think. But groups construct reputations of individuals to mark their capacity for power and to provide a check against its potential abuse. Your power is only as good as your reputation.

Your reputation arises in patterns of communication within groups, and in particular through gossip. Far from being idle, inconsequential, or easily rooted out of social life, gossip is the sophisticated means by which group members spread information that feeds into reputations. Using gossip, a group can track an individual’s likelihood of advancing its interests and determine what power each individual has.

Groups also empower individuals through status-enhancing esteem, a social reward that motivates behavior as powerfully as does the desire for sex or cravings for chocolate. In strategically giving esteem to individuals, groups encourage those with power to continue to act in ways that are good for the group, making it feel good to do good. Our influence, the lasting difference that we make in the world, is ultimately only as good as what others think of us. Having enduring power is a privilege that depends on other people continuing to give it to us.

We have arrived at the pivotal moment in the power paradox: what you do with power. Will you continue to make a difference in the world and enjoy the lasting esteem of others? Or will you lose your power, as so many before you have done? What are the practices that determine keeping or losing power?

Outside of falling in love, there may be no more widely considered pattern to social life than the rise to power, the abuse of power, and the subsequent fall from power. We are transfixed by the falls from power that follow its abuse. Think of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled after the “shock and awe” campaign (a campaign that in itself was a fall from power for the United States), the collapse of Enron, or Michael Milken, Martha Stewart, Dennis Kozlowski, and Bernie Madoff doing prison time. Our fixation on the fall from power leads us to believe that the abuse of power is inevitable. But the power paradox is more complex than that. Thankfully, a bit more choice is involved. It is not human nature to abuse power. To understand how this is so, we need to understand what power does to how we perceive the world.

Power is not only the capacity to influence others; it is also a state of mind. The feeling of having power is a rush of expectancy, delight, and confidence, giving us a sense of agency and, ultimately, purpose. Throughout the world people experience power as the vital force guiding their lives. Power is a dopamine high, and these initial feelings can spiral into ways of interacting with others that resemble a manic episode. (And yes, bouts of mania are associated with elevated feelings of power.)

Every time we experience power—a recurrent feeling in our everyday interactions—we find ourselves at a moment, a fork in the road, where we must confront perhaps the most important choice we will make in life, yet one we make on a daily basis. Propelled forward by the feeling of power, we can act in ways that lead us to enjoy enduring power, have lasting influence in the world, and continue to be esteemed by others, or we can be seduced by the self-indulgent possibilities that power occasions. Which path you take matters enormously.

Handling the power paradox depends on finding a balance between the gratification of your own desires and your focus on other people. As the most social of species, we evolved several other focused, universal social practices that bring out the good in others and that make for strong social collectives. A thoughtful practitioner of these practices will not be misled by the rush of the experience of power down the path of self-gratification and abuse, but will choose instead to enjoy the deeper delights of making a lasting difference in the world. These social practices are fourfold: empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories. All four of these practices dignify and delight others. They constitute the basis of strong, mutually empowered ties. You can lean on them to enhance your power at any moment of the day by stirring others to effective action.

Straying from an intent focus upon others can catapult you toward selfish and shortsighted behavior, the kind of abuses of power that fill the pages of our daily newspapers, history books, biographies, and the works of Shakespeare and many other great authors.

It isn’t just the wealthy and famous who can be undone by the seductions of power; it’s any one of us at any moment. To lose focus on others can lead to empathy deficits and the loss of compassion, impulsive and unethical action, and rude and uncivil behavior. When we are feeling powerful, we can easily rationalize our unethical actions with stories of our own superiority, which demean others.

This is the heart of the power paradox: the seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place. By succumbing to the power paradox, we undermine our own power and cause others, on whom our power so critically depends, to feel threatened and devalued. Cumulative abuses of power lead to diminished trust at work, reduced commitment and closeness in families, and the unraveling of the cooperative fabric of civil society.

The Price of Powerlessness

Today poverty affects one in seven of all Americans. An astonishing proportion of American children are hungry, sick, and unable to concentrate in school. For thirty years economic inequality has expanded, to the point that the ever-widening gap between rich and poor is generally considered to be the most pernicious social problem facing the United States.

United States politics is almost exclusively run by the very wealthy, who, succumbing to the power paradox, may be the very people most blind to the problems of powerlessness, poverty, and inequality. As economic inequality expands in the United States, poverty and racism are persistent. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and many unseen others, followed by the Black Lives Matter movement, have prompted acute concerns about coercive institutional force. Social institutions—social clubs, prep schools, elite private colleges, cotillions, fraternities and sororities, and charity and corporate boards—perpetuate, to some degree inadvertently and to some degree intentionally, power imbalances.

Missing from our conversation about these social issues is the psychology of powerlessness. How, as the scientists at the heart of this new line of inquiry like to say, does powerlessness—resulting from poverty, inequality, racism, gender bias—“get under our skin”? Economic inequality within cities, counties, states, and nations leads to a lack of trust, impulsive behavior, a diminished sense of community, poor health, depression, anxiety, and violence. The costs of powerlessness, which are so often the result of others succumbing to the power paradox, are profound. Powerlessness amplifies the individual’s sensitivity to threat; it hyperactivates the stress response and the hormone cortisol; and it damages the brain. These effects compromise our ability to reason, to reflect, to engage in the world, and to feel good and hopeful about the future. Powerlessness, I believe, is the greatest threat outside of climate change facing our society today. 

Excerpted from The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner.  Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Dacher Keltner, 2016.

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