Researchers Unravel Strange And Contradictory Feelings About Power It's inauguration season in Washington, D.C. Many of us revel in the pomp and circumstance — yet we have another side to our psychology that enjoys seeing the powerful fall from grace.
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Researchers Unravel Strange And Contradictory Feelings About Power

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Researchers Unravel Strange And Contradictory Feelings About Power

Researchers Unravel Strange And Contradictory Feelings About Power

Researchers Unravel Strange And Contradictory Feelings About Power

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/510047641/510047642" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's inauguration season in Washington, D.C. Many of us revel in the pomp and circumstance — yet we have another side to our psychology that enjoys seeing the powerful fall from grace.

Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump exemplify our contradictory feelings about the rich and famous. We idolize the powerful, but also relish their downfall. D Dipasupil/WireImage hide caption

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D Dipasupil/WireImage

Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump exemplify our contradictory feelings about the rich and famous. We idolize the powerful, but also relish their downfall.

D Dipasupil/WireImage

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's inauguration season here, a time for champagne toasts and A-list balls. Many of us revel in inauguration traditions, the chance to glimpse the famous and powerful. Yet, as NPR's Shankar Vedantam explains, we humans have another side to our psychology. It's a darker side that enjoys nothing more than seeing the powerful topple from their pedestals.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: To unravel our strange and contradictory feelings about power, we start not in the nation's capital but in Hollywood. Movie stars aren't the only ones here. Adoring fans are drawn here too like paperclips to a magnet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And point your attention to the left 'cause we are seeing Beverly Hills for the first time on the left-hand side. Wow.

VEDANTAM: With the muzak blaring, a handful of people on a celebrity tour peer out an open-topped van hoping to glimpse the homes of LA's rich and famous. The guide points out Gwen Stefani's house before pulling up near Katy Perry's compound.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do I have any Katy Perry fans aboard? (Singing) Fireworks.

OK, well here's her house. She actually owns the entire corner here. And look at her view. It's amazing, isn't it?

VEDANTAM: Humans hunger for a chance to fantasize about lives of luxury and extravagance. And yet, many of us also hate the rich. The lure of celebrity tours is rivaled only by the popularity of tabloid magazines detailing the rehab trips and broken marriages of those same celebrities. You see this all the time. We idolize our leaders but pounce on the slightest gaffe. Vice President Dan Quayle was all but drawn and quartered when he urged a little boy to add an E to the spelling of the word potato. Texas Governor Rick Perry's campaign for president was ended by one moment of forgetfulness in a debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK PERRY: The third agency of government I would - I would do away with - the Education, the

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Commerce.

PERRY: Commerce. And let's see - I can't.

VEDANTAM: And the one moment from Governor Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for president that everyone remembers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD DEAN: And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House - yah (ph).

VEDANTAM: Goodbye Mr. Dean. You get the point. We can adore our leaders one moment and skewer them the next. Some researchers believe the roots of our love-hate relationship with power lies in our evolutionary history. Christopher Boehm is an evolutionary biologist who has studied chimpanzees in Tanzania. In chimp society, the alpha male is often the center of attention. Other chimps suck up to him, flatter him, except, Boehm says, when they don't.

CHRISTOPHER BOEHM: Basically, if you look at the individual chimpanzees and how they behave around their superiors, it's rather ambivalent.

VEDANTAM: You can see this ambivalence every time the alpha puts on an intimidation display - uprooting trees, throwing rocks, forcing the other chimps up into the trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIMPANZEES SCREAMING)

BOEHM: As they race up the trees, they are screaming, which tells the alpha male I'm scared of you, so it's also deference. But as they get up to the top of the tree, they then stop screaming and they give another call called the waa bark. And a waa sounds something like this - waa. And the waa call is one of defiance and hostility. And this tells him and me that they don't like what he just did. So political ambivalence toward the alpha male is pretty easy to identify once you know the species well.

VEDANTAM: Early humans shared this trait. Boehm studied nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes whose lives have changed little over thousands of years. What he found again was a deep ambivalence toward the powerful. Take, for example, one of the most powerful members of a hunter-gatherer tribe, the skilled hunter.

BOEHM: And people love this guy, but the minute he tries to turn that meat into power, that is to keep the meat for himself and give it to his cronies and develop power that way, the group will treat him with extreme discourtesy. They may criticize him. If it really gets too bad and the guy is a real despot and is trying to basically take other people's autonomy away, they'll kill him.

VEDANTAM: The great hunter is admired and revered, but if he gets too big for his boots, he's taken down. This love-hate attitude toward power isn't lost on those who hold it. It's one reason handlers work so hard to make leaders look down to earth and humble. President Reagan was often shown in jeans and flannel shirt on his ranch saddling up his horses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORMER PRES RONALD REAGAN: I'm not used to riding with the chest plate on him, and I forget and girth up before I remember.

VEDANTAM: The Kennedys took time to blow off steam and remembered to bring the press along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's a family outing in Lewis Bay Hyannis Port for the Kennedys. The president, accompanied by his convalescing father, his brother...

VEDANTAM: What these images do is say don't worry. I may be powerful, but I haven't lost touch with you. We're still connected. We're the same.

So what should we make of our newly elected president, Donald Trump? He's not just powerful but a celebrity in his own right. Back in Hollywood, this hasn't been lost on Star Track Tours.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is Donald J. Trump's winter estate here in Beverly Hills, yeah. And here's the servants quarters back here on the right-hand side.

VEDANTAM: Donald Trump's election has ignited the contradictory feelings we have toward the rich and powerful. To his critics, he's broken with the precedent of modesty set by many leaders. He's rich. He's powerful. He's famous. And he flaunts it. In the language of evolutionary anthropology, he's the boastful hunter in the tribe. But to his supporters, Donald Trump is very much a man of the people, someone who's promised to level the playing field, a populist. In the language of evolutionary anthropology, he's the skilled hunter who vows to share the meat. You can be sure of this. As the cameras flash and the motorcades go by, there will be lots of adoring smiles and hidden fury. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast.

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