“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Unfortunately, that statement from British historian Lord Acton is not entirely false.
How power impacts our brains is the subject of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, a new book by UC Berkeley Professor Dacher Keltner. At Berkeley’s Social Interaction Laboratory, Keltner and his students explore how power reduces our inhibitions and weakens our social awareness.
“What we’ve learned,” says Keltner, “is that when we feel powerful, the empathy regions of the brain disengage. We suddenly become impulsive, we behave inappropriately, we are more likely to swear, and we generally lose touch with other people.” Keltner’s lab students dub this the Cookie Monster effect.
Thus, the paradox. The skills we need to gain power and effectively lead others – like social intelligence and empathy – are the very ones we are likely to lose when we achieve power.
So, does power corrupt? Yes and no.
“One of the things we’ve learned from studying the science of power,” states Keltner, is that it “tends to amplify our pre-existing tendencies.” In effect, power reveals.
Consider the effects of power on the late U.S. President, Richard Milhous Nixon. Long before Nixon left the White House as an unindicted coconspirator in the Watergate scandal, he was a highly paranoid conspiracy theorist. His attempts to break an imaginary conspiracy led him to launch a conspiracy that broke him, and, ultimately, cost him the presidency.
Nixon’s words, “I am not a crook,” and “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” forever cloud the political zeitgeist of the 1970s.The pall of Watergate overshadowed Nixon’s foreign and domestic achievements even until his death in 1994. Nixon died not famous but infamous, an icon of the power paradox.
Keltner finds that examples of the fall from power like Nixon’s resignation may lead us to believe that the abuse of power is inevitable. But the power paradox is more complex.
Keltner writes, “It is not human nature to abuse power. Power is a dopamine high. Every time we experience power, we find ourselves at a moment, a fork in the road . . . we can act in ways that lead us to enjoy enduring power, or we can be seduced by the self-indulgent possibilities that power occasions. Which path you take matters enormously.”
What will you do with power?
In his classic work The Prince, Machiavelli concluded that a person should use any means necessary in order to acquire and protect power. Yet, the rise of countless leaders like Nixon who subscribed to the Machiavellian model show that tactics like coercion and manipulation inevitably lead to their fall.
Keltner writes, “Society has changed dramatically since Machiavelli’s Renaissance Florence in ways that require us to move beyond outdated notions of power.” He suggests that we broaden our definition of power as the capacity to make a difference in the world, to find our purpose – the specific difference in the world that we are best suited to make – and bring it to fruition.
To overcome the power paradox, Keltner recommends a fivefold path to stay in check with what matters most:
- Be aware of your feelings of power. Be mindful of the dopamine high associated with power. Keep yourself grounded by reminding yourself of your higher purpose.
- Practice humility. Power is a gift, not a right. Don’t get caught up in your own press.
- Stay focused on others, and give. Our ability to make a difference in the world will grow exponentially when we give to others, and help others be givers.
- Practice respect. People with their self-respect intact are unified behind the purpose and values of the society, and are committed to the success of the society over personal success.
- Change the psychological context of powerlessness. Use your position to create opportunities that empower those without power. Call into question elements of society that devalue others.
In short, Keltner challenges us to answer the question, “What will you do with your power?” Will you be corrupted by it, or use it to make a positive impact on the world? The choice is yours.
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