The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence

May 18, 2016


Dacher Keltner has written a "revolutionary and timely reconsideration of everything we know about power."


Excerpt from the Introduction of
The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence
by Dacher Keltner
Penguin Press



Life is made up of patterns. Patterns of eating, thirst, sleep, and fight or flight, which are so crucial to our individual survival. Patterns of courtship, sex, attachment, conflict, play, creativity, family life, and group living, which are so crucial to our collective survival. Wisdom is our ability to perceive these patterns, and to shape them into coherent chapters of the longer narrative of our lives.

This book is about a pattern of social living that makes up your daily interactions, and in the end, shapes what your life will amount to. It has profound implications for whether or not you will have a sexual affair, get caught breaking the law, suffer from panic attacks or be leveled by depression, die early due to a chronic illness, and find purpose in life and bring that purpose to fruition. This pattern of social living kept appearing in scientific studies I’ve conducted these past 20 years. It’s called the power paradox.

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 fall from power due to what is worst. In more specific terms, power is the capacity to make a difference in the world through social tendencies that enhance the lives of others, but the experience of power leads us to lose those very skills, and behave, in our worse moments, like impulsive, out of control sociopaths.

The power paradox is a guiding force in our personal and work lives, and determines, ultimately, how happy we are, and how happy the people we care about are. How we handle the power paradox determines our empathy, generosity, civility, innovation, intellectual rigor, and the collaborative strength of the communities and social networks that make up our social identities. The power paradox has ripple effects, shaping the patterns that make up our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, and the broader patterns of social organization that define societies and the political struggles of the times: sexual violence; bias and discrimination against Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Gays; systemic poverty and inequality. How we collectively handle the power paradox is fundamental to the health of society.

These claims pose the question I first confronted when I began the studies some 20 years ago that uncovered the power paradox: what is power? To outsmart the power paradox, we need to know what power is. And here scientific inquiry would produce its first surprise. Our culture’s understanding of power was deeply shaped by one person—Niccolò Machiavelli—and his powerful book on power from the 16th century, The Prince. In that book Machiavelli argued that power is, in its essence, about force, fraud, ruthlessness, and strategic violence.

A widespread tendency followed Machiavelli’s writings: to think of power as extraordinary acts of coercive force. To think of power was to think of the great dictators, decisive moves on the battlefield, hostile takeovers in business, ruthless co-workers sacrificing colleagues in order to advance their own careers, or bullies on the middle school playground tormenting smaller kids.

This view of power as coercive force and fraud fails. It cannot make sense of so many important changes in human history: the ending of slavery, the toppling of dictators throughout the world, the ending of apartheid, the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements, to name just a few. It cannot make sense of all the forms of influence and power in our 21st century—medical advance, the new social media, a new law, a great film, the birth control pill, a radical painting or novel, a scientific discovery. This thinking blinds us to the pervasiveness of power in our daily lives, how it shapes every interaction from those between parents and children to those between work colleagues.

Power Is About Making a Difference in the World

Society has changed dramatically since Machiavelli’s renaissance Florence, and this requires that we move beyond outdated notions of power as coercive force and fraud. We are more poised to outsmart the power paradox if we broaden our thinking, and define power as the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular through stirring others in our social networks.

This definition opens our eyes. Power is not only found in extraordinary acts, but also in quotidian acts in our daily lives, for example, when you provide an opportunity to someone, ask just the right question to stir creative thought in a friend, calm a colleague’s rattled nerves, or direct resources or respect to a young person trying to make it in society. Power is not just found in the boardroom, battlefield, or Senate floor; it is in every interaction, every relationship, whether you are trying to get your two-year old to eat green vegetables or inspire a stubborn work colleague to do her best work. From the first moments of life, power dynamics, patterns of mutual influence, define the ongoing interactions between fetus and mother, infant and parent, romantic partners, childhood friends, teens, people at work, and groups in conflict. And power is not something limited to rare individuals in extreme moments of their highly visible lives—the malevolent dictators, high profile politicians, or jet setting rich and famous—it defines the waking lives of every human being. Power is the medium in which we relate to one another. Your power is about making a difference in the world through influencing others.

Excerpted from The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence with permission of the publisher.
Copyright © by Dacher Keltner.
Published by Penguin Press.
All rights reserved.


Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the faculty director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. A renowned expert in the biological and evolutionary origins of human emotion, Dr. Keltner studies the science of compassion, awe, love, and beauty, and how emotions shape our moral intuition. His research interests also span issues of power, status, inequality, and social class. He is the author of the best-selling book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and of The Compassionate Instinct.

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