The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner

The Power Paradox

Want to understand power? Forget Machiavelli! For too long, argues Dacher Keltner, author of “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence,” we have accepted unquestioningly the version of power made famous by that sixteenth century author. To Niccolo Machiavelli, Keltner explains, power is “about force, fraud, ruthlessness and strategic violence.” To Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, power is about making a difference in the world — a positive difference.

People can best attain power not by seizing it but by earning it by advancing other people and groups’ interests. People become powerful by being good people. They focus on others by giving to others, expressing their gratitude to others, offering empathy, and telling the kinds of stories that bring people together. That earns them esteem, status and respect — all of which adds up to the very positive version of power that Keltner is describing.

Power as making a positive difference in the world is not at all what I expected when I decided to read Professor Keltner’s book. I already knew some of his work on power. I had read some of the individual studies he had published in scholarly journals. They are so creative, and sometimes even hilarious, that I couldn’t wait to see how he put them all together in his new book.

A few of his studies have made it into the popular press, so you may have heard of them even if you are not an academic psychologist. An all-time favorite is the cookie-eating experiment. Keltner brings together groups of three people and arbitrarily gives one person the most power by assigning that person the role of the supervisor over the other two. As the three people are working on their assigned task, an experimenter brings in a plate of five delicious cookies. With three people and five cookies, not everyone gets to have two cookies. Who is especially likely to take more than one cookie? The most powerful person, of course: The supervisors were nearly twice as likely as their supervisees to take a second cookie. Not only that, but the supervisors were also more likely to be uncivil by eating like slobs — with their mouth open, smacking their lips, and letting cookie crumbs fall out of their mouths and onto their clothes.

In other studies, powerful people were especially likely to speak in rude ways, interrupt others, and — I am not kidding — take candy that was set aside for children. They seem to be menaces on the road, too. Drivers of expensive cars are more likely than the drivers of modest cars to cut in front of other drivers, and even pedestrians, at four-way stops.

Those studies illustrate only one half of what Keltner calls the “power paradox.” They show what can happen once people become powerful. Power is like a drug. It can feel intoxicating. All of that kind-hearted focus on others that helps people gain power gets undermined once they have power. That’s when the powerful are tempted to focus instead on the rewards they can reap for themselves. If they give in to that temptation, they become self-serving, impulsive, disrespectful braggarts with little empathy for anyone. One risk is that they will be punished with gossip and the loss of their good reputations. Then their power is at risk, too.

Read More: Great Power Competition

By remaining aware of the risks of power, people who become powerful can maintain their positions and continue to do good. The key to enduring power, Keltner tells us, is this:

“Stay focused on other people. Prioritize others’ interest 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 delight of others, as they make a difference in the world.”

The other half of the power paradox, the good half, is the way in which doing good can be a path to power. As Keltner explains:

“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 psychopaths.”

Professor Keltner describes the most consequential set of implications of his analysis of power in the chapter, “The Price of Powerlessness.” The most vulnerable people in society, including those who are impoverished or stigmatized or have few of the resources that are necessary for a decent life, are constantly on edge. They face more threats and greater stress. “Powerlessness,” Keltner notes, “is the greatest threat to a person’s promise of contributing to society, as well as to their individual health and well-being.”

It is apt that the Director of the Greater Good Science Center should end by encouraging us all to do good: “to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, and other identity-devaluing threats, and to give voice and opportunities to those who have been disenfranchised in the past.” And doing good is something we all can do, regardless of whether we have any wealth or fame or prestige. We can do it in small ways with our kindness and encouragement and empathy and expressions of gratitude. Following Keltner’s advice is a twofer: We get to make a positive difference in the world, and we become more powerful in the process.


1. “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 (Principle 19). On Kayo Drive, this could be seen in the difficulties kids had sitting still and concentrating, in their bad grades, and in the depressions so common among their parents. Powerlessness robs people of their promise for making a difference in the world.”

2. “Money, fame, class, and titles are just symbols, or opportunities, for making a difference. Real power means enhancing the greater good, and your feelings of power will direct you to the exact way you are best equipped to do this.”

3. “It isn’t just dictators, power-mad politicians, kings of high finance, and drug-addled rock stars who are vulnerable to abuses of power; the power paradox can undermine the social life of any of us at any moment. Whether we are at work, out with friends, in encounters with strangers, or with our children, the very skills that enable us to gain respect and esteem are corrupted when we are feeling powerful.”

4. “Groups give us power when we are enthusiastic, speak up, make bold assertions, and express an 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.”

Courtesy: Psych Central

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