The Perils of Power | Hidden Brain We've all heard the adage that "power corrupts," but psychologist Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley has found evidence to prove it. His book is The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.
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The Perils of Power

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The Perils of Power

The Perils of Power

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When you imagine a powerful person, what comes to mind?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

KEVIN SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) In Gaffney, we had our own brand of diplomacy - shake with your right hand but hold a rock in your left.

VEDANTAM: Perhaps you don't picture someone as evil as Frank Underwood from "House Of Cards," but you also probably don't think of someone very nice. We don't normally associate power with qualities like compassion and kindness. But the psychologist Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley says maybe we should.

DACHER KELTNER: What the science is finding is that kids at school, kids in summer camps, people in colleges, people in organizations, if they are emotionally intelligent and really focus on others and even practice generosity, they rise in social power.

VEDANTAM: Dacher studies power dynamics, and he's found something that might seem counter-intuitive. If you think of power is all about Machiavellian scheming, the people who display altruism, kindness, social intelligence, Dacher finds that these are the people who gain power and respect from their peers. But there's a catch - once these people become powerful, power tends to undermine the very qualities that helped them get there in the first place.

KELTNER: There's something about the seductions of power that makes you lose sight of ethics in other people's interests.

VEDANTAM: Dacher Keltner is the author of the new book "The Power Paradox: How We Gain And Lose Influence." We think his ideas are especially relevant right now when so many people are vying for power in this election season.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Dacher, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

KELTNER: It's great to be with you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: I'm fascinated by the research that you cite in the book, Dacher, that suggests that power shapes nearly all of our relationships. If you put a bunch of 13-year-old kids in a room, you say that power dynamics quickly emerge. And you make the case that kids who are kinder and more empathetic are the ones who quickly assume the mantle of power in the group.

KELTNER: So you're right on both counts, Shankar. I mean, first of all, you know, one of the things that we've learned in the science of power is that really power dynamics, who's influencing whom, shape every relationship from parent-child dynamics to dynamics in the U.S. Senate. And then, you know, what we've discovered over the past 20 years is probably a little bit counter-intuitive, and it challenges older ideas about power, more Machiavellian ideas. And what the science is finding is that kids at school, kids in summer camps, people in colleges, people in organizations, if they are emotionally intelligent and really focus on others and even practice generosity, they rise in social power.

VEDANTAM: I have to say, as I hear that, I have some skepticism, and this might be because you attended nicer schools than I did.

KELTNER: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: But my experience of middle school felt, you know, more emotionally like "The Hunger Games," that, you know, kids who were stronger and louder and meaner often got their way. I mean, is my experience an aberration?

KELTNER: Well, I don't know where you went to school, but it tends to be an aberration. You know, so what these studies do is they take a group of seventh graders, you find out who has respect and esteem at the start of the year, you study what their social behaviors are or their social strategies, and then you track how they do in the hierarchy of that seventh grade class, to use your example. And, you know, what you find is, yes, the bullies and the Machiavellians, the sociopaths, they get a little bit of attention early. But over the long haul - and this is true in other contexts - they don't have as much power as they would like to. And instead, what studies find now numbering in the dozens, it's really the the connecting kid, the empathetic kid, the kid who's really open and curious who really rises in the esteem and the ranks of the class.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if this really comes down to thinking about power in two different ways.

KELTNER: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: The power that I'm hearing you talk about is really reputational power. You know, I think of Doctors Without Borders, for example, as having reputational power. They don't - you know, they don't cut my paycheck and they can't fire me, but I pay attention to what they say because I respect them as an organization. On the other hand, when you have coercer (ph) power, people who can punish you or people who can take away your life or your freedom, it feels like maybe is it possible that those two different - there are two different paths to power for those two different kinds of power?

KELTNER: Absolutely. And, I mean, that's a wonderful observation. And so one of the things that the science of power has done, which I report on in "The Power Paradox," is to take a step back and think, what do we really mean by power? You know, we intuitively define it as money, but a lot of things happen in the world that are independent of capital. We might think of it historically as military might, but you can easily come up with counterexamples where immense military might actually produces weakness.

And so we have to kind of problematize it, and what the field has done is thought about one strategy to power that works in certain contexts is a kind of a coercive top-down Machiavellian strategy. Another kind is a more socially intelligent strategy that involves some of these things we've been talking about.

And, you know, what's really interesting, Shankar, and one of the things that inspired me to write this book is a lot of data that have been summarized by people like Alice Eagly finding that our conception of power is moving from coercive strategies to more collaborative strategies. So it's one of the reasons I wrote this book.

VEDANTAM: So when you describe this kind of power that is more reputational, by that account, you would say, you know, the United States' power in the world is not just a reflection of the strength of its military and the size of its armed forces. It's really about the power of its ideas, its ability to do well in the world. Is that the argument you're making, that this kind of soft power in some ways is more important than the hard power that we've come to associate with power?

KELTNER: Well, this is one of the ideas that really spurred the science of power for the - in our lab and other labs for the past 20 years, which is that, you know, if you think about the influence the U.S. has on the average world citizen, part of it is through the flow of capital and economics and part of it is, you know, having this expansive military. But a bigger component or dimension to our power is how do we shape the thinking of people around the world? How do we shape the emotions of people around the world? Are there what they deem to be fair or right?

And that comes through books. It comes through forms of art. It comes through journalism, and I think, you know, I took that thinking of soft power, if you will, which is, in some ways, is harder, and really extended it to the personal realm, which is that as a parent, you know, yeah, I have economic control over my kids. I have - I'm bigger than they are. But really I also influence them through ideas, through preferences that I enable, through the context that I put them in. So power is much more than economic or military might. It's really - it's how we influence the states of other people.

VEDANTAM: You talk in the book about the story of Abraham Lincoln and cite his rise to power as a classic example of what you're talking about, the skills that you're talking about.

KELTNER: Yeah. You know, one of the things I did, Shankar, you know, in the three years of writing this book - and really while I've been doing the science of power - is just to read broadly on the biographies of great leaders, the historical accounts of important social change. And, you know, what I encountered is time and time again that there are these examples, very compelling examples, of great leaders who lead through advancing the interests of other people. You know, I mean, Abraham Lincoln was such a compelling example, you know, and I love this observation about him of Thurlow Weed who was a journalist at the time and a close student of the politics of Lincoln's era. And he's like what is it about Lincoln that accounts for his really unpredicted rise in power? He's a poor guy, awkward, didn't have all the advantages that often give you power. And he said - Thurlow Weed said, you know, Lincoln sees and hears everybody who comes to him. He just engages in the interests of others. And then when I read that and then I heard about the science, for example, of Stephane Cote showing it's really these emotionally intelligent managers in workplaces that rise in the ranks and build strong teams, I saw this nice convergence of evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to ask Dacher about several experiments he's conducted that show that even as kindness and empathy can give rise to power, having power can undermine kindness and empathy. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Hi there. I'm Maggie Penman. I'm one of the producers of HIDDEN BRAIN encouraging you to download the NPR One app. As summer winds down, it's a great way to find new shows and stories for those lovely last road trips to the beach. Or if vacation is over for you, maybe you could download it before your morning commute. Basically, you should just download it. It's in your app store - NPR O-N-E.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Dacher, you've done a lot of work looking not just at the forces that give rise to power, these forces of empathy and generosity and kindness, but also what power does to those forces in turn, that when people acquire power, it seems to change their ability to be empathetic, to be kind. Talk about that.

KELTNER: Well, this was some of the more dramatic work that we engaged in, you know, that's now been replicated in a lot of different places, so - and that's why I call the book "The Power Paradox," which is - you know, if you look at this social science of power, we get power through, you know, the pro-social tendencies that we are endowed with. But then once we feel powerful or we come from a background of privilege and feeling above others, we lose those tendencies.

So let me give an example. You know, there are a lot of studies that show that empathetic practices get you power. So one of my favorites is work by Woolley and colleagues showing, you know, you give teams these complex problems to solve, and it's really the more empathetic individuals that make their team stronger and perform better, right? They're listening well. They're asking good questions. They're paying attention to other people. So empathy makes the team and the individual stronger.

And then what we've started to show in our lab is once we feel powerful, we lose - or our capacity to empathize and to know what others are thinking really is diminished. So in one study, really simple, we, you know, get - bring people to the lab. We have them engage in this exercise where they compare themselves to the - sort of the real poor people of society, and it makes them feel powerful. Or they compare themselves to the - kind of the elite of society, and they feel as a result of that comparison less power. And then we just present them some photos of people expressing different emotions with subtle muscle movements around the eyes, like concentration or flirtatious or decisive. And what we find is when you feel powerful, you lose your ability to read emotion in people's facial expressions.

VEDANTAM: Why would that happen?

KELTNER: Well, I mean, there are a couple of deep reasons. One is, you know, and this is just striking research by Keely Muscatell and Supvindeer Obdea (ph) which is that when - you know, Shankar, what - if I feel powerful, the studies show I just feel less interested in other people, less invested in them. And as a result, the empathy networks in the brain are actually quieted. They are less active. So Keely Muscatell brought people to the lab. She had them sort of think about another student's daily life, and if you come from a position of privilege and power, the classic empathy networks in the frontal lobes of your brain are not even active when you're thinking about another student. So this is a very deep effect of what power does to our empathic capacities.

VEDANTAM: So what you're saying, in some ways, is that we are empathetic to others in part because that's useful to us. We lack power in many situations, and being empathetic and being aware of others allows us to navigate our social worlds effectively. But when we perceive ourselves having power and privilege, in some ways, we don't need to depend as much as we do on others. We don't need to reach out to others, and so those networks shut down.

KELTNER: Yeah, no, really well put - because if you think about, for example, somebody who's poor and doesn't have a lot of resources, they're dependent on other people to get to work, to do a little bit of, you know, ad hoc childcare or what have you. So you're dependent on others, and out of that state of mutual dependence, you really, with vigilance, attend to other people and are aware of what they're doing. And that produces these empathy benefits coming out of less power. And then the compliment - you lose that empathy when you feel less dependent on others and powerful.

VEDANTAM: So one of the paradoxes of this is something that you and others have identified, which is to look at the generosity of people who are rich and poor.

KELTNER: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: And you find some really surprising things.

KELTNER: Yeah. You know, so, again, you know, what studies are finding - and again, this is part of the power paradox - which is that, you know, there is this really interesting literature called competitive altruism. And if you take the average person in a social network and they practice generosity and they share resources or they encourage others, through those acts of generosity, they rise in power. People trust them. They esteem them. You even see this in hunter-gatherer societies, where it's really the individual who shares the most food in hunter-gatherer societies who rises in the ranks.

And yet, you know, what we started to find with Paul Piff and other colleagues is, once I feel powerful, I prove to be less generous. So in one study, we brought people to the lab who varied in terms of their social class and family wealth. We just gave them a very simple opportunity to share resources with a stranger, and we found it was really the poor who shared more, and higher-power people, more privileged people shared less.

VEDANTAM: Now, obviously, people who are millionaires and billionaires, they might be philanthropic, and they might give larger amounts of money. But what you're really saying is, as a proportion of your wealth, for a millionaire to give a thousand dollars is not the same thing as somebody at the poverty line who's giving 50.

KELTNER: Yeah, we always have to be careful about how we interpret these results. And these are just, you know, proportions of sharing and not absolute amounts, and you're absolutely right. But you even get this experimentally. So, you know, in one of our early studies in power, we were interested in, does experimentally produced power lead to kind of the hoarding of resources which we've been talking about? We brought groups of three people to the lab. We randomly assigned one individual to the position of power.

And then, by design, they went through this experiment. And it was kind of boring, and they were writing policies for the university. And we brought in halfway through the study this plate of five chocolate chip cookies. Every member of the group - three people all together - took a cookie. And so we asked who took that fourth cookie. And it was our high-power person who tended to take that cookie. Not only that, but they ate in this kind of impulsive way, where their lips were smacking, mouths were open, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

KELTNER: Crumbs - took us seven months to code it - crumbs falling on their sweaters. And again, you know, what this tells us is really two things, Shankar, which is, you know, power does make us a little bit more self-focused. In this - you know, you're sharing less. You're keeping more for yourself. You're eating the cookie in an impulsive way. But the other thing I think we shouldn't lose sight of is this can happen to us all, right? This is just what the mind does when we feel powerful.

VEDANTAM: Because, of course, these were just random people who are brought into the lab, and you randomly picked one of them to assign them a feeling of power.

KELTNER: Yeah, absolutely.

VEDANTAM: You did mention there were five cookies and three people, so what happened to the fifth cookie?

KELTNER: Well, this was where it was really interesting because, you know, the rules of politeness suggest that you really should not be that uncouth person who takes the last cookie off the plate. And so we did pilot testing for the experiment, and no one would take that fourth cookie. So that's why we added a fifth cookie - just to free somebody up to take that second-to-last cookie.

VEDANTAM: So it's fascinating because, of course, what you see in these lab experiments is often reflected on much, much bigger stages, where you see people in power abusing that power - you know, having affairs, cheating and, you know, falsifying financial returns. And, you know, at one level, the conventional view, I think, is sort of to say, these are just people who were bad people who rose to the top. But what you're suggesting is actually something more complex and, in some ways, much sadder, which is that these might not be bad people who rose to the top, but these might be good people who rose to the top, and power has made them bad.

KELTNER: Yeah. I mean, that's such a - a very compelling and sweeping statement about this, Shankar. You know, that does align with how I read this social scientific evidence, which is that, you know, there are dozens of experiments where we randomly assign typical people to either positions of power or less power.

And you find these patterns where, if I'm just randomly given power, and I feel this sense of sort of expansive, you know, euphoria that comes with power and a sense of omnipotence, you know, I speak more rudely. I take resources that are meant for somebody else. I'm more likely to flirt inappropriately. I'm more likely to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior.

We have studies showing, when you make somebody feel powerful, you're more likely to cheat at a game to win 50 bucks. The list goes on. And it really lends credence to Lord Acton's old observation that, I think, stands the test of time, which is power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

VEDANTAM: You've also found the same thing looking at drivers of various cars. I understand you ran an experiment where you stood outside an intersection and saw who stopped at a stop sign.

KELTNER: Yeah (laughter). You know, I mean - so I remember one day I was biking to work, and almost got hit by a black Mercedes. And the guy - you know, and I was in the right. I sort of waited and gone through this four-way stop area in California. And this guy plowed and almost hit me, and he looked at me as if, you know, I was the hoi polloi and should be sort of taken off the road.

And I thought, you know, it'd be really interesting to test these ideas about the impulsive actions that power produces by looking at how people drive. So, you know, what we did in one of the versions of this study is we put a young Berkeley undergraduate at a pedestrian zone right next to the Berkeley campus. The pedestrian zone is this strip that cuts across a road that is - it gives the pedestrian the right of way. You get to cross the road. It's white stripes. And then we coded, and we had these Berkeley undergrads kind of hiding in the bushes. Our one student was standing at the pedestrian zone.

The other student, who was coding, was noting the make of the car and whether, very simply, did they stop for the pedestrian, which is law, or did they blaze through the pedestrian zone? And 0 percent of our drivers of poor cars - the Yugos and Plymouth Satellites of the world - drove through the pedestrian zone; 46.2 percent of our drivers of wealthy cars - you know, the Mercedes and the like - drive through the pedestrian zone.

VEDANTAM: Forty-six percent?

KELTNER: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Is it something to do with Berkeley?

KELTNER: (Laughter). You know, it's funny. I just got a letter from a guy in Germany who was like, this would not happen in Germany, where we really value our Mercedes and BMWs. You know, we've replicated it. It's been replicated in other - other states. It led people to email me from all manner of context. One of my favorites was a Prius driver emailed me and said, well, you know, that's Mercedes, but of course Prius drivers abide by the law. So we checked, and Prius drivers were actually the worst.

(LAUGHTER)

KELTNER: So, you know, and this just fits this - this larger profile that I'm sure your listeners are aware of - that there's something about the seductions of power that makes you lose sight of ethics and other people's interests.

VEDANTAM: You talk in the book about leaders who are able to overcome the paradox of power. And we talked earlier about Lincoln and how his rise to power was marked by demonstrations of these - these positive behaviors. But you also write about how he was able to retain a sense of that kinder, gentler, more empathetic self, even as he acquired and wielded great power. Talk about that story and what he did that might be illustrated for the rest of us.

KELTNER: Well, you know, I think that the thing that really is striking about Lincoln's power is, you know, he had a short presidency, but he remained focused on the interests of others. He remained focused on uniting disparate parties and really the greater good, if you will - that he knew that that there was this state of the Union that he was heading toward.

And the way that he did it, you know, is - and it just comes through, for example, in Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team Of Rivals" - is he just - he kept close to not only the dignity of everybody and treated, you know, the warring sides, if you will, with respect, but he also - and I think this is really important - is that he sort of kept close to, you know, the suffering that was involved and the - what the costs and stakes were.

And that was really foundational to his power. And what you see in a lot of the great leaders is this - this really commitment to the greater good and the concept of respect and the needs of others.

VEDANTAM: You know, Dacher, you and I have talked before. And as I was reading the book, I remembered something that you had told me in the past, which is you didn't grow up with a lot of power and privilege. And to some extent, you now have some of those things. And I'm wondering if you can talk about your own journey and, you know, how your own journey may have changed you and whether you see yourself affected by the very same forces you describe in this book.

KELTNER: Yeah, you know, I mean, it's so striking, you know, and it - it just comes back and bites you. And, you know, that as I've been lucky enough to get a good education and, you know, become a professor and be on this show and have a voice, I find I am just as vulnerable to the power paradox as anybody. You know, I find that when I'm feeling powerful, suddenly my scientific acumen isn't as sharp. I find when I'm feeling powerful the way I speak to other people is a little diminished. Here's one of my favorite examples, and this is not a joke. When I was writing the chapter about the car study that we just described, about people driving fancy cars or feeling powerful kind of driving in unethical ways, I went to pick up my daughter, who was rock climbing. A bunch of her friends - teenagers - piled into the back of the car. I was feeling powerful and writing this chapter and feeling like a good dad. I was captivated by this sense of my own self-worth. And I drove off and ran over my daughter's best friend's foot.

VEDANTAM: Oh, my gosh.

KELTNER: I know. And, you know, I could have caused a lot of serious damage. Fortunately, I did not. But this is part of the lesson of the book, which is that power is part of every moment of our social lives. We've got to be aware of it. It can lead us to do foolish things, and we should try to do the things that make it a force for good.

VEDANTAM: Dacher Keltner, I want to thank you for talking with me today.

KELTNER: It's been great to be with you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Dacher Keltner is a psychologist at the University of California. He's the author of "The Power Paradox: How We Gain And Lose Influence."

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VEDANTAM: This episode of the HIDDEN BRAIN podcast was produced by Maggie Penman and edited by Tara Boyle. Our staff includes Kara McGuirk-Allison, Chris Benderev, Jenny Schmidt and Renee Klahr. You can find more HIDDEN BRAIN on Facebook and Twitter and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you like this episode, write a review. It helps others find the show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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