The Power Paradox | Review & Notes

Dacher Keltner. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. Penguin Books, 2016. (196 pages)

REVIEW

This is perhaps one of the most important books I’ve read on the behavioral sciences, a thesis that has the potential to transform virtually everything about human relationships.

Keltner’s work and explication of that research is surprisingly simple. As such, it has significant explanatory power to undermine the pervasive systems of injustice that exist in our world today–gender hierarchy, racism, tribalism, nationalism, etc. Keltner not only illuminates the “workings under the hood,” (in the brain), he provides conclusions that speak to the real life experience of humanity (cf. Power Causes Brain Damage in the Atlantic and Don’t Let Power Corrupt You in Harvard Business Review).

This is one of those books I would not only recommend a leader read, but principles I would beg of our leadership to actually practice.


NOTES

INTRODUCTION

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 (1) 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. (2)

POWER IS ABOUT MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD

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, … (4)

POWER IS GIVEN TO US BY OTHERS

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. (5)

Like it or not, our species is reputation mad… (5)

Your power is only as good as your reputation. (6)

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. (6)

We have arrived at the pivotal moment in the power paradox: what you do with power. (6)

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. (7)

POWER IS GAINED AND MAINTAINED THROUGH A FOCUS ON OTHERS

These social practices are fourfold: empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories. (8)

THE ABUSES OF POWER

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. (9)

THE PRICE OF POWERLESSNESS

United States policy is almost exclusively run by the very (9) wealthy, who, succumbing to the power paradox, may be the very people most blind to the problems of powerlessness, poverty, and inequality. (10)

Powerlessness amplifies the individual’s sensitivity to threat; it hyperactivates the stress response and the hormone cortisol; and it damages the brain. … Powerlessness, I believe, is the greatest threat outside of climate change facing our society today. (10)

THE NEW SCIENCE OF POWER

Principle #1: Power is about altering the states of others.

Principle #2: Power is part of every relationship and interaction.

Principle #3: Power is found in everyday actions.

Principle #4: Power comes from empowering others in social networks.

Principle #5: Groups give power to those who advance the greater good.

Principle #6: Groups construct reputations that determine the capacity to influence.

Principle #7: Groups reward those who advance the greater good with status and esteem.

Principle #8: Groups punish those who undermine the greater good with gossip.

Principle #9: Enduring power comes from empathy.

Principle #10: Enduring power comes from giving.

Principle #11: Enduring power comes from expressing gratitude.

Principle #12: Enduring power comes from telling stories that unite.

Principle #13: Power leads to empathy deficits and diminished moral sentiments.

Principle #14: Power leads to self-serving impulsivity.

Principle #15: Power leads to incivility and disrespect.

Principle #16: Power leads to narratives of exceptionalism.

Principle #17: Powerlessness involves facing environments of continual threat.

Principle #18: Stress defines the experience of powerlessness.

Principle #19: Powerlessness undermines the ability to contribute to society.

Principle #20: Powerlessness causes poor health.

POWER PRINCIPLES.pdf

One

POWER IS ABOUT MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD

People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping. … Today coercive force is a more likely path to powerlessness than to gains in power. (21)

…the fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics… The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power. – Bertrand Russell, 1938

Here is a definition that meets these requirements: power is about making a difference in the world. This definition at its core is pragmatic: power is about changing other people’s lives. The definition reflects our highly social nature: we make a difference in the world by influencing other people. (23)

Principle #1: Power is about altering the states of others.
Principle #2: Power is part of every relationship and interaction.
Principle #3: Power is found in everyday actions.
Principle #4: Power comes from empowering others in social networks.

POWER IS ABOUT ALTERING THE STATES OF OTHERS

Power, then, is the capacity to alter the state of others. By state, I simply mean the condition of another person or other people. (24)

Power lies in altering the tastes, preferences, and opinions of others. (26)

POWER IS PART OF EVERY RELATIONSHIP AND INTERACTION

…all relationships prove to be defined by mutual influence. A developing fetus and its mother are actually competitively vying for nutrients the mother has produced in the womb, a competition that helps explain certain pregnancy-related illnesses. Even this most non-hierarchical of relations–that between mother and developing child–is characterized by patterns of mutual influence. Defining power as altering others’ states means that power permeates all relationships, in the family, among friends, and in economic exchanges. (29)

In more egalitarian, mutually empowered couples, partners feel more (30) love, more trust, and more satisfaction. But in heterosexual relationships where the woman feels disempowered, she is less likely to have orgasms and is more likely to lack sexual interest and lubrication of her vaginal walls in preparation for sex. In heterosexual couples where the man feels disempowered, for example by a job loss or an economic downturn, he is more vulnerable to premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction. Sexual desire cannot be separated from power, nor can its poetic partner, love. (31)

Parents who express their authority but empower children with voice and independence produce higher-functioning kids than parents whose styles are anarchic or who are rigidly hierarchical and coercive and who decree from positions of absolute authority what is right and wrong. (33)

POWER IS FOUND IN EVERYDAY ACTIONS

People gain power as the result of small, everyday behaviors: by speaking up first, offering a possible answer to a problem, being first to assert an opinion, freeing up everyone’s thinking by throwing out a wild suggestion, question, or humorous observation that gets the creative juices flowing. (34)

| Our power is found in simple acts that bind people together and yield the greatest benefits for the group. The difference we make in the world depends on the quotidian: on raising the right question, offering encouragement, connecting people who don’t know one another, suggesting a new idea. Power is surprisingly (34) available in daily acts of social life. Critical to avoiding the power paradox is recognizing that enduring power hinges on doing simple things that are good for others. (35)

POWER COMES FROM EMPOWERING OTHERS IN SOCIAL NETOWKRS

Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is “in power,” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

If our power is found in our social networks, then it follows that it is based in how well we empower others. … That power lies in empowering individuals in social networks is in fact an antidote to the power paradox. (38)

Behavior is infectious. When you share something with a stranger, that act of generosity makes the stranger 19 percent more generous in a subsequent interaction with new strangers not involving you. … If you do things that boost your happiness, it will not only boost your friend’s happiness, it will also lift the spirits of your friend’s friend, someone you don’t even know. Power is found in empowering others in our social networks. (39)

THE POWER PARADOX BEGINS

Two

POWER IS GIVEN, NOT GRABBED

Whereas the Machiavellian approach to power assumes that individuals grab it through coercive force, strategic deception, and the undermining of others, the science finds that powers is not grabbed but is given to individuals by groups. (43)

| What this means is that your ability to make a difference in the world is shaped by what other people think of you. Your capacity to alter the state of others depends on their trust in you. (43)

This idea distills down to four principles:

[One] …groups demonstrate an instinctive tendency to give power to individuals who bring the greatest benefit and least harm to individuals, to those who advance the greater good (Principle 5). To make abuses of power less likely, groups shape people’s capacity to influence by constructing their reputations, which track their contributions to the greater good (Principle 6). Groups reward those who are good for the group by affording them elevated status and esteem (Principle 7). And when an individual acts in ways that violate the greater good–the group’s sense of its collective (43) welfare-the group will resort to gossip and other reputational damage to diminish the influence of that individual (Principle 8). (44)

Principle #5: Groups give power to those who advance the greater good.
Principle #6: Groups construct reputations that determine the capacity to influence.
Principle #7: Groups reward those who advance the greater good with status and esteem.
Principle #8: Groups punish those who undermine the greater good with gossip.

These four principles center on a concept known as the greater good. (44)

GROUPS GIVE POWER TO THOSE WHO ADVANCE THE GREATER GOOD

Social Tendency—Actions with High Greater Good Score Actions with Low Greater Good Score
Enthusiasm—Reach out to others Avoid social contact
Kindness—Cooperate, share, give Exploit others for own gain
Focus—Focus on shared goals, rules Neglect shared goals, rules
Calmness—Instill calm, perspective Complain, be defensive
Openness-Be open to others’ ideas and feelings Disregard others’ ideas

Groups give us power when we are enthusiastic, speak up, make bold assertions, and express and interest in others. Our capacity to influence rises when we practice kindness, express appreciation, cooperate, and dignify what others say and do. We are more likely to make a difference in the world when we are focused, articulate clear purposes and courses of action, and keep others on task. We rise in power when we provide calm and remind people of broader perspectives during times of stress, tell stories that calm during times of tension, and practice kind speech. Our opportunity for influence increases when we are open and ask great questions, listen to others with receptive minds, and offer playful ideas and novel perspectives. (50)

A leader receives support and respect from the group…in exchange for keeping order. – Frans de Waal

GROUPS CONSTRUCT REPUTATIONS THAT DETERMINE THE CAPACITY TO INFLUENCE

Reputation is the judgment of an individual’s character arrived at by a social collective. At its core, reputation is about character, trust, and integrity, or the capacity to advance the greater good. (54)

Schandmasken – “shame masks.” (55)

This pattern of dots captures the geometric arrangement of the eyes and mouth on the human face. Seeing it evokes the sense that someone is looking at you, watching you, and ready to form opinions about your reputation. Researchers find that even incidental exposure to this abstract image makes people more generous to others. (58)

Simply seeing the dots evocative of the face reduced by half the participants’ selfish tendency to give no money to a (58) stranger. An awareness of reputation brings out our better tendencies. (59)

GROUPS REWARD THOSE WHO ADVANCE THE GREATER GOOD WITH STATUS AND ESTEEM

Very often power and status go together. (60)

…the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated. – William James

GROUPS PUNISH THOSE WHO UNDERMINE THE GREATER GOOD WITH GOSSIP

…gossip is an ancient and universal means by which group members give power to select individuals and keep the powerful in check (Principle 8). (63)

Gossip, then, is how a social network negotiates and establishes a person’s reputation, in particular those who seek power and want to exert influence in Machiavellian fashion. (64)

On average, we pass along every act of gossip we receive to 2.3 people, typically to high-status, highly connected (65) people like, in the sorority study, high-status and admired young women. Gossip flows to individuals who have the greatest power to define, and damage, the reputation of others. (66)

| So powerful is the social instinct to gossip that it gave rise to institutions that preserve its basic function. (66)

THE GIFT OF POWER

Three

ENDURING POWER COMES FROM A FOCUS ON OTHERS

The belief that a sacred, living force propels us to make a difference in the world is universal to humanity. (69)

Today we might call it purpose, mission, or calling, but perhaps the best name would be power. Our purpose in life, the specific difference in the world that we are best suited to make, both in antiquity and today, is expressed in this universal experience of power. (69)

The key to enduring power is simple:

Stay focused on other people. Prioritize others’ interests as much as your own. Bring the good in others to completion, and do not bring the bad in others to completion. Take delight in the delights of others, as they make a difference in the world.

Principle #9: Enduring power comes from empathy.
Principle #10: Enduring power comes from giving.
Principle #11: Enduring power comes from expressing gratitude.
Principle #12: Enduring power comes from telling stories that unite.

ENDURING POWER COMES FROM EMPATHY

Paying careful attention to others’ emotional expressions is a way of showing respect and eliminates some of the misunderstandings and stressful conflicts that can undermine smooth and productive social interactions. It predicts better conflict resolution between romantic partners and more productive negotiations at work. (75)

Having more women in positions of leadership is likely to increase innovation and the bottom line. (76)

So powerful is our tendency to empathize, to attend carefully to the expressions of others, that we even respond empathetically to cartoons of emotional expressions. (80)

A high-empathy five-year-old reported having dense networks of good friends when she was assessed at age eight, and she enjoyed greater status in the eyes of those friends. High-empathy adolescents have more friends and are trusted more by those friends and fare better academically. As college students, those who are attuned to the emotions of others do better in school; they are less vulnerable to depression and anxiety and more satisfied with life. (82)

| Empathetic young adults moving into the workplace report higher levels of job satisfaction: they prove to be better negotiators,… Team members led by empathetic managers work in more productive, innovative, satisfying ways and are les likely to lfeel stressed and to suffer from physical pain. (82)

We can increase our empathy in so many ways. We can ask open-ended questions. We can listen actively and empathetically, orienting our attention to what others are saying. (82)

Empathy is a first practice that is essential to achieving enduring power. (83)

ENDURING POWER COMES FROM GIVING

…touching, and being touched, is one of the simplest and oldest ways in which people provide rewards to others, a basis of enduring power. (83)

Power is found in everyday actions of daily living that encourage and empower others (Principle 4). (85)

Ubuntu is “the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share.” [Desmond Tutu]

ENDURING POWER COMES FROM EXPRESSING GRATITUDE

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith

Gratitude is good for us. | Maintaining enduring power, though, comes from translating this interior experience of gratitude into its outward expression. (88)

ENDURING POWER COMES FROM STORIES THAT UNITE

Contagious laughter and shared amusement unite individuals in the spirit of common cause. (94)

On every imaginable measure, narrating the emotions surrounding intense, traumatic experiences yielded greater benefits than coolly describing the facts. It reduces levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. (95)

In stories, we come to understand the difference we are to make in the world. Our identity and purpose in life are nothing more than the story we tell over the course of our lives. (95)

People who tell more coherent stories about their lives, with clear plot lines, characters, themes, and organizing passions, are physically healthier and find greater purpose later in life. To the extent that our stories have narrative coherence and encourage others, we empower them toward similar ends.

LOSING FOCUS AND THE ABUSE OF POWER

Four

THE ABUSES OF POWER

If Machiavelli’s (largely wrong) saying “It is better to be feared than loved” is the most widely known maxim about power, Lord Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a close second. (99)

The evidence is clear: when we lose sight of the other-focused practices that make for enduring power (Principles 9 through 12), Lord Acton’s thesis prevails. People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children, and to communicate in rude, profane, (99) and disrespectful ways. Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place. (100)

We gain and maintain power through empathy, but in our experience of power we lose our focus on others. We gain and maintain power through giving, but when we are feeling powerful, we act in self-gratifying and often greedy ways. Dignifying others with expressions of gratitude is essential to achieving enduring power, but once we are feeling powerful, we become rude and offensive. We build enduring power by telling stories that unite, but once we feel powerful, we tell stories that divide and demean. (100)

Absolute power renders us vulnerable to the power paradox because our attention is a limited resource. (100)

Principle #13: Power leads to empathy deficits and diminished moral sentiments.
Principle #14: Power leads to self-serving impulsivity.
Principle #15: Power leads to incivility and disrespect.
Principle #16: Power leads to narratives of exceptionalism.

…humans are quite adept at explaining away their moral infelicities; it is a gifted capacity of the human mind. (102)

With these abuses of power, the power paradox reaches its dramatic climax. The very principles by which we gain and maintain power are lost upon experiencing power. Power corrupts the very qualities we need to make an enduring difference int he world, and rapidly slips away. (103)

POWER LEADS TO EMPATHY DEFICITS AND DIMINISHED MORAL SENTIMENTS

…the capacity for mimicry is degraded by power. (108)

People feeling powerless had little difficulty breaking their egocentric habit and drawing the E to accommodate another’s perspective, as seen on the [right] in the following figure. People feeling powerful, by contrast were nearly three times more likely to fail at this perspective-taking task. Power deprives us of shifts in perspective out of our own egocentric view, which undermines our enduring power. (11)

Vagus nerve activation leads to increased sharing, cooperation, and altruism–necessities for achieving and maintaining enduring power. (113)

…when we are feeling powerful, we are moved more by our own experiences than by those of other people. The shift in attention brought about by power–from others to ourselves–costs us in terms of being moved by others’ inspiring acts. (115)

POWER LEADS TO SELF-SERVING IMPULSIVITY

…”acquired sociopathy.” 9116)

As my work on the abuses of power unfolded, I came to believe that experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behavior. (17)

…the high-power participants ate more impulsively. They were more likely to eat with their mouths open and lips smacking and crumbs tumbling down onto their sweaters, apparently unconcerned about what others might be inclined to think. (118)

People feeling powerful were more likely to say it’s okay to not pay taxes, and that there’s nothing wrong with overreporting travel expenses or speeding on highways. When we have power, our morals begin slipping away. (120)

In the early 2000s, U.S. shoplifters took about $13 billion in goods from retailers each year, and 11 percent of Americans confessed to the act. Themes of power were present in the data: whites were more likely to shoplift than Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. And yes, the wealthy were more likely to shoplift than the poor. (127)

POWER LEADS TO INCIVILITY AND DISRESPECT

People feeling powerful are more likely to violate the laws of cooperative communication. They are more likely to interrupt others. (128)

Power produces not only less respectful language but also flat-out rudeness. (129)

The social fabric that is so vital to our sense of trust and (129) goodwill is built on the moral sentiments that power diminishes–empathy, compassion, gratitude, and elevation. (130)

POWER LEADS TO NARRATIVES OF EXCEPTIONALISM

Our tour of the abuses of power reveals that when it comes to ethical behavior, it is the wealthy and powerful who don’t play by the rules. They are more likely to grab food, express sexual impulses, drive recklessly, and lie, cheat, and communicate rudely. They disregard social rules at the expense of others and the norms that bind people to one another. As they move through the day, they likely leave a wave of everyday social injustices in their wake. (130)

Power makes us blind to our own moral missteps but outraged at the same missteps taken by others. (131)

Today in most contexts people do not refer to superior races or savage cultures, but narratives of exceptionalism are alive and (133) well. (134)

Narratives of exceptionalism provide an easier way of thinking about inequality than considering the complex environmental, historical, political, and economic processes that give rise to disparities in wealth. And they are certainly more palatable than stories about the compassion deficits, impulsive actions, incivility, and unethical tendencies of the powerful. Such abuses of power are easier to demonstrate in the lab than are genetic differences between those who rise to power and those who don’t. (135)

WARNING SIGNS OF THE POWER PARADOX

Five

THE PRICE OF POWERLESSNESS

Powerlessness and the power paradox cannot be separated. In some ways, how a society does or does not respond to its most powerless people is a direct measure of its vulnerability to the power paradox. Societies are indeed judged by how they treat their most vulnerable and powerless. … Attending both to the plight of the powerless and to powerlessness’s causes is the most important step toward outwitting the paradox. (139)

To be less powerful is to face greater threats of every kind, especially from people with more power. (141)

The same is true in humans: powerlessness is the most robust trigger of stress and cortisol release. (141)

Chronic threat and stress orient the individual toward defense, undermining most other ways of engaging with the world and causing problems with sleep, sex, creative thought, and trusting interactions with others. Chronic threat and stress damage regions of the brain that are involved in planning and the pursuit of goals. The principle is clear: powerlessness undermines the individual’s ability to contribute to society. (141)

Principle #17: Powerlessness involves facing environments of continual threat.
Principle #18: Stress defines the experience of powerlessness.
Principle #19: Powerlessness undermines the ability to contribute to society.
Principle #20: Powerlessness causes poor health.

POWERLESSNESS INVOLVES FACING ENVIRONMENTS OF CONTINUAL THREAT

If power makes us impulsive, powerlessness makes us reserved. (146)

STRESS DEFINES THE EXPERIENCE OF POWERLESSNESS

Trier Social Stress Task (TSST).

POWERLESSNESS UNDERMINES THE ABILITY TO CONTRIBUTE TO SOCIETY

Powerlessness compromises the sexual response… (152)

Powerlessness also has profound effects upon intellectual function. (152)

chronic powerlessness–(152) stunts brain development in perhaps permanent ways… (153)

…diminishes a person’s sense of purpose and enjoyment of life. 9153)

…more vulnerable to clinical anxiety. (153)

POWERLESSNESS CAUSES POOR HEALTH

…it actually damages telomeres,… Feeling powerless is a fast track to a shorter life. (155)

Combining all these effects, a child in poverty faces a 20 to 40 percent greater risk of dying by disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Growing up poor in the first quarter-century of a person’s life shaves six years off life expectancy. (156)

TRANSCENDING THE POWER PARADOX

Powerlessness is the greatest threat to a person’s promise of contributing to society, as well as to their individual health and well-being. 9157)

As grim as these findings are, they point to simple and inexpensive ways we can mitigate the price of powerlessness. Reducing the threats to the identities of the less powerful will allow them to fare better; it is good for a society’s health and well-being to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality, and other identity-devaluing threats, and to give voice and opportunities to those who have been disenfranchised in the past. Increasing the value that the powerless (157) feel they have in society will allow them to fare better; it pays to do things that dignify the less powerful, that communicate that they are worthy like everyone else. When the less powerful are given simple means to handle the stresses of their station, such as exercise, immersion in nature, or mindfulness techniques, they fare better at school and in their daily living. When green spaces are added to poor urban neighborhoods, or when lead in poor people’s homes is reduced, or when kids in poor schools are taught to calm their stress through simple breathing exercises, or when low-income college students form trust-enhancing casual friendships with white students at elite universities, the sense of threat fades and sense of being valued increases, and their health and performance rise. (158)

When we succumb to the power paradox and act in ways that disempower others, we are likely having direct problematic effects on the lives of others. Being aware of the many prices of powerlessness is the most powerful antidote to the power paradox. (158)

Epilogue

A FIVEFOLD PATH TO POWER

1. Be aware of your feelings of power.

2. Practice humility.

To influence others is a privilege. To have power is humbling. (161)

3. Stay focused on others, and give.

4. Practice respect.

5. Change the psychological context of powerlessness.

Attack the stigma that devalues women in society. Confront racism that costs African Americans in terms of their health and well-being and contribution to society. Call into question elements of society–solitary confinement, underfunded schools, police brutality–that devalue people. And seek change. Create opportunities within your community and workplace that empower those who have suffered disempowerment due to the moral mistakes of the past. This may not feel like the game-changing social revolutions of earlier times, but they are quiet revolutions just the same, and they are very much needed today. (163)

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3 comments

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