The Power Paradox

The Power Paradox is a book by [[Dacher Keltner]]. He explores a new framing of power, shows that power is gained by empathy, then shows that once people gain power, they lose the empathy that awarded them power in the first place. He also explores the negative effects of powerlessness through examples from the poor town he was raised in.

Reframing Power

Keltner starts this book by reframing power from the aggressive, coercive, or machiavellian power many think of, to a new definition:

  • Power is your capacity to make a difference in the world by influencing the states of other people

With that new definition, Keltner has an important insight:

  • Power is part of every relationship and human interaction we take part in

Keltner uses these new ideas to shape the start of his book. Power is transformed from a tool used by stereotypically evil men, to a force we all grapple with on a daily basis. Along with this, power no longer has a negative connotation.

Keltner then shows that power, by its nature, is much more often a positive force, because power is gained through empathy. In fact, the title of Chapter 2 says it best: "Power is Given, Not Grabbed". Keltner explores the social dynamics of power in his lab at Berkley. His findings show that people with the most power, the best ability to influence the state of others, are those who empower others and benefit the greater good of the group.

In these dynamics, gossip is even a positive force. It is "how we articulate a person's capacity to for advancing the greater good and spread information to others" (p. 63). When someone is acting out of line in a social environment, like stealing from others, gossip helps spread the word to stay away from that detractor. Here's an experiment describing how gossip is a positive force:

  • "Twenty-four particiapnts came to the lab and were divided into groups of four. They played six rounds of an economic game; in ever new round they plays with participants they had not played with before. In each round, each participant was given some moeny and preseneted with the chance to give some money to a group fund. That gift would incrase in value adn be redistributed among the four players. Ths game pitted the tendency to act on behalf of others - give money to the group fund - against the free-riding tendency to not contribute yet take money from the group fund built by others... After the first round, the study got interesting. In a gossip condition, participants could send a note to those who woudl be playing with their former partners about those individuals' cooperative or selfish tendencies. As in real life, all players were aware of the possibility that hey would be gossipped about... In a neurtal condition lacking the opportunity to gossip or ostracize, people gave less and less to the public fund over time.... in the condition in which participants could gossip, participants actually gave more" (p. 67)

Once Keltner establishes his new idea of power, he introduces the ultimate paradox.

The Paradox

After establishing that power is gained through a focus on others, Keltner introduces the power paradox: power causes people to lose the attitudes and motivations that awarded them power in the first place. These manifest in

  • empathy deficits
  • narratives of exceptionalism
  • self-serving impulsivity

Throughout the book, Keltner gives examples of how people who feel more powerful in any given moment are less empathetic. In one experiment, Keltner explores the results of momentarily shifting the relative view of an individuals power. One of them particularly stuck out to me:

  • "Participants first viewed the twelve-rung ladder below [shows picture of basic ladder]. Then some of them were asked to think for a minute about the people who have the most power, wealth, and prestige in the United States; others were asked to think about the people with the least wealth, education, and prestige - the impoverished and out of work and homeless... Afterward they were asked to place an X on the ladder to indicate what they felt was their own standing in society. Participants who had thought about the richest and most educated and esteemed places their X lower on the ladder. By contrast, those who thought about the less fortunate placed the X higher. Simple shifts in how we perceive ourselves, in comparison to those at the top of society or those at the bottom, lead to marked differences in feelings of power" (p.104).

This is an intriguing finding. It's easy to think of many relationships we have that make us feel big or small. And the results extend further.

  • "Once the participants had been made to feel relatively powerful or powerless through the ladder exercise, they then took a widely used test of empathy that captures the ability to read others' emotions by carefully attending to subtle expressions.... the experience of power eroded the participants' capacity for empathy. People typically get about 70 percent right on the test. Those who had been made to feel powerful by comparing themselves to those who are less well off, through the ladder test, scored lower on the test of empathy" (p. 105).

The ladder experiment makes it clear how power plays a role in our every day lives. Our relative sense of power towards another person shapes our relationships to them. Think about the difference between talking to a younger sibling vs. your boss. You are constantly in danger of lacking empathy when you've had a recently powerful experience. Keltner's ladder experiment shows that feelings of power can measurably deteriorate our ability to connect with and empower others.

This paradox helps explain the rise and fall of many people. They begin by starting a mission that empowers those that feel powerless. They rise through the ranks propped up by those who they empower. Then, once they reach the top, they take advantage of those same people as a result of their newfound power.

The Effects of Powerlessness

He ends the book by showing the hidden negative effects of powerlessness. Throughout this section, Keltner does a great job of mixing together the Personal and Observational pillars of [[POP writing]]. In Chapter 5, he walks through the different ailments of his neighbors from the rural town of Penry, showing examples of how poverty can have clear negative effects. One idea that stood out to me was Keltner's finding that less powerful people are more likely to attribute success or failure to a person's environment, while more powerful people are likely to attribute success to an individual's skill and work ethic (hence "Narratives of Exceptionalism"). People have more awareness of environmental forces when the effects are negative, as opposed to those from healthy environments, who assume their good luck is a reflection of hard work. It becomes easy to think you would have had the skill willpower to succeed either way. Is that really true?

Further Reflections

Increased Power potential

Keltner's framing of power left me constantly thinking about social media. In the age of influencers, this new definition means their livelihoods are based on their ability to gain power so they can influence our desires to buy new products.

What's more, social media has given every individual a higher power potential than ever before. Never before has any normal person's potential reach been so large, but many are still left completely feeling powerless. What is the cause behind this rift? What is it about this technology that enables only a small few to take advantage of the power potential, while it feels out of reach to so many others?

Power Awareness

The ladder experiment in general has inspired me to be much more aware of how powerful I feel at any given moment.

Because power is a force at work in every relationship, we are forced to grapple with it every day. The negative effects of power can degrade our relationships. One of the biggest causes of strife between people is a lack of empath. Lacks of empathy are more likely when a person feels powerful. When this sense of power goes unchecked, relationships are at risk.

High Performers' Sense of Power

It seems that many high performers experience some sort of childhood trauma or come from a poor background. Many rappers are examples of this. Does this experience keep them grounded as they rise to power? Is their feeling of powerlessness so embedded that it is easy for them to avoid the power paradox trap (or just avoid it for a longer amount of time)?

My Linked Notes

  • why-the-world-has-gone-crazy

    The ideas here are also closely related to those in [[The Power Paradox]], which has a great term for our obsession with successful individuals - [[narratives of exceptionalism]]. [[Dacher Keltner]] shares results from experiments in which less powerful people more likely to attribute success (of lack thereof) to an individual's environment, while more powerful people are likely to attribute success to an individual's "special gifts". More and more, I am starting appreciate environments over special individuals. It's starting to make me question my sources of inspiration, like The [[Tim Ferris]] Show and writing like Peter Thiel's Religion.

  • brain
  • 2020-12-10

    This week I started reading [[The Power Paradox]] and so far it has been great. The main idea behind the book is reframing power as "our capacity to make a difference in the world by influencing the states of other people." Instead of the machiavellian idea of power many of us think of, Keltner brings to light the everyday power interactions we encounter every day.

  • 2020-12-12

    I want to share a really cool antidote from [[The Power Paradox]] about [[Charles Darwin]]. Keltner writes "He carefullly wrote fifteen hundred letters a year, or about four a day, to collaborators who included missionaries in remote parts of the world, a French neurologist working on facial musculature, MD's reporting on when patients blush, fur trappers, gardeners, zookeepers, and pigeon fanciers. Darwin's writings are an expression of many people's ideas from all walks of life."

  • 2020-12-14

    There is a crazy antidote from [[The Power Paradox]] I can't get over. [[Charles Darwin]] used to write four letters a day to people around the world. He used to hand write four letters a day and I can't hit send on a text message to ask how my friends are. What is happening?

  • 2020-12-20

    I've been reading **The Power Paradox ** and writing some notes here and there. A great read so far. You can find some of my notes by looking at the linked references on [[The Power Paradox]] page

  • 2020-12-27

    I finished reading [[The Power Paradox]], but I haven't reviewed and updated my notes yet

  • 2021-01-10
  • 2021-01-10

    For any of you who would like to read [[The Power Paradox]] without actually reading it, check out my notes page

One last thing

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