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Dacher Keltner talks changing the social dynamics of power, powerlessness

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Photo Credit: Jigar Mehta for the Greater Good Science Center


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MARCH 05, 2021

Professor Dacher Keltner directs the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, is the founder and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and is the host of the podcast, “The Science of Happiness.” The Daily Californian senior staff writer, Hari Srinivasan, sat down with Keltner to discuss his research on the social dynamics of power and advice to students on how to reduce powerlessness in today’s society.

Daily Cal: Could you elaborate on the traditional, almost Machiavellian definition of power? Why has this negative definition of power stuck around for so long?

Dacher Keltner: The Machiavellian definition of power is that you gain power by manipulation, by lying, by deception, by undermining other people’s strength and by breaking up alliances between the people around you so that you have the power to coerce others into doing things that fit your self-interest. 

It has been really surprising when you think about the rise of authoritarian politics, Trump, ideas about power and sexual dynamics at work that this coercive Machiavellian version of power is just part of human nature — it’s stuck around a lot. It fluctuates a lot in its prominence, but it is just part of how people get things done in the world.

DC: How would you redefine power in the context of social dynamics? 

DK: That’s one of the questions that’s inspired us to do 25 years of research because power isn’t simply about military encounters or economic encounters or politics in the House of Representatives or the Senate. It’s social. Every relationship is influenced by power dynamics. And so, given that, we define power as an individual’s capacity to alter the state of another person, and that state could be a belief the person has, their emotions, their physiology, their likelihood of acting. So your power is how strong is your capacity to shift the status of other people around you.

DC: Are there different kinds of power?

DK: Once you take the definition that power is your capacity to alter the state of others, suddenly it opens up to all kinds of power. Power can be about money, you can change somebody’s state with money. Power can be knowledge; the CRISPR discoveries of Jennifer Doudna are powerful; they have transformed people’s lives. Power can be about actions that you take, power can be your moral character. Power can be military might obviously, and political decisions. Power is really part of every human action. Joseph Nye at Harvard has written about cultural power or soft power. So power is in the written word, power is in a musical song, power is in a painting. Power is everywhere. And it really boils down to how much does the thing that you’re interested in have the capacity to influence you.

DC: Are there psychological downsides and benefits associated with power? 

DK: For the past 25 years, our lab (Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory) has really been trying to understand: If you feel like you have a capacity to alter the status of others or you feel like you have power, what does it do to you?

And one set of effects of power are really good. And it’s why I wish all people felt like they had power in the world. And I think healthy societies encourage power in a lot of individuals. So if you feel powerful, you’re more likely to speak your mind, you’re more likely to express your attitudes, you’re more likely to feel that you get to act in ways that are fitting with your character, you’re more likely to feel pride, joy and happiness, you’re more likely to have a healthy physiological profile. So there are a lot of benefits of power. 

And then the troubles begin with the prosocial stuff, where I’m really taking care of other people and thinking about people and empathizing with them. And regrettably, what power tends to do is make you a little bit less empathetic, a little bit less altruistic; you’re less likely to share, you feel less compassion when you encounter people suffering. So one of the real deficits of power is that it tends to diminish our empathic and compassionate tendencies.

DC: Your 2017 book is titled, “The Power Paradox.” Why is it a paradox?

DK: It’s a paradox because, in general, you rise in power through your capacity to influence others and change their minds and inspire them and move them and lead them to action. 

And then, regrettably, once you have power — you’ve gotten the promotion or you’ve won an award or a high profile and people are thinking about you — that experience diminishes the very capacities that got you power in the first place. So, if we rise in power by listening well and sharing resources and connecting and building strong networks, once we have power, those very skills are diminished and undermined; we don’t connect as well. We don’t listen as well, we don’t empathize as well. 

I think that one of the great dynamics in human social life is the rise and fall of power. Shakespeare was interested in it, we saw it with Trump. It’s just a classic trajectory, our lives are rising and falling in power. And that’s why it’s paradoxical. Paradoxes are puzzles. They always are our conundrum for the human imagination. It always surprises people to learn — I rose to power because of how thoughtful I was, how energized and how connected I was. And then once I had power, I lost the capacity to do that. So that’s paradoxical.

DC: You list 20 power principles in your book, “The Power Paradox.” Is there one that particularly stands out to you?

DK: There are two that I think our present society really needs to think about. The first is that your power is given to you by other people. And I think that’s a really deep idea that emerged in sociology and studies of social networks, that your capacity to do good in the world is really a gift from other people.

But the big one for me, that really stays with me to the present day is the price of powerlessness. And we often think about, wow, what is it like to have power, and how do you get it and look at the lives of the rich and the famous and so on. 

But there’s another side of the equation, which is if you don’t feel like you have power; if you don’t feel like you have a voice at work, if you don’t feel like society treats you fairly like with so many people of color, disability, women, if you grow up in an impoverished environment. For part of my life, I grew up in a very poor part of the country. 

What the science suggests is that there are profound costs in terms of your neurophysiology. It stunts the growth of your brain in terms of levels of stress hormones and in terms of your life expectancy. It hurts your body in terms of your ability to be creative. Powerlessness, not feeling like you have power and voice, makes you less creative and rigorous. 

So I feel like many of the problems of the United States are really problems of power and not of debt. It’s not creating context to give enough power to all of our citizens. So that one stays with me to this day and keeps me focused on understanding it.

DC: Have there been additional research findings on power in your lab or outside since your book was published?

DK: Yeah, there have been a ton. What happens is when you do research, it’s always modified. One important line of research is by my Berkeley colleague, Serena Chen. And she finds that power doesn’t always lead to abuse, like I had argued; really it depends on who you are. And if you’re a really kind person or you’re really a collaborative person, power can actually strengthen those tendencies. So I think that we often are simplistic in saying power just leads to abuse, like I talked about in the power paradox, rather it’s a more nuanced story. 

We’ve just published a paper in the last couple of months on these two models of power — of Machiavellian approaches to power and collaborative approaches to power. That was an important outgrowth of writing this book, which is, there are different pathways to getting power. 

And then it’s really interesting to think about who endorses those views. And one of the important findings in that paper on the theories of power is, as you get more education, you tend to move toward a more collaborative model of power. If you work in a big lab, or you’re working in a newspaper, a tech firm, you have to collaborate to get things done. 

In contrast, if you feel alienated from society, or disenfranchised, like a lot of poor white people do, you want more coercive models of power, you endorse more Machiavellian models. And I think that in part connected to the phenomenon of Trump, that he appealed to a group of people who feel outside of society and who wanted somebody to really not hold back in going after power, so that was important. I think that there’s a lot of interesting new work, looking at the intersections between race and class and gender, and how do those all work together, and how they get power and influence? 

DC: Any advice on how a person or group can change their “powerless” dynamic?

DK: There are two different ways to answer the question. The first is, let’s say you are in a context, like at work, and you don’t feel like you have a voice. Let’s say you’re at work and you’re a woman, and you feel like there’s a slightly sexist culture there. And it doesn’t allow you to feel powerful. 

And I think that there are important things that you can do for the individual and that kind of context, where it’s like, you want to make sure you speak up, and you want to make sure that you build strong social ties with people around you. 

And you want to make sure that you call out examples of discrimination and harassment. I do a lot of teaching around sexual harassment and women in power. 

And there are a lot of very concrete steps you can take if you are feeling powerless at work, that can help you with speaking out and putting things on record and building strong ties and creating opportunities to find your voice at work. 

And then the broader question that your question stirs is, what do we do, as a society, with the one in seven people who are living in poverty in the United States, the racism and the discrimination that exists, the mass incarceration and police violence? The answers are many; finding the pathways to power through education is one and then fighting for the powerless. 

So we got a lot of work to do. One of the biggest questions about the United States right now is why is there such intransigent powerlessness? Why is that? Why have we lost the capacity for upward mobility? I think that the concerns that people had in the political election are about this, like, you got to pay people a living wage, you got to make sure people don’t get thrown into prison for trivial things. Jason Okonofua, in our department, is looking at how principals disempower young kids by suspending them. We got to change that. To me, the central question of the United States is how to change powerlessness.

DC: A lot of Berkeley students may well end up in positions of power. What advice would you give to students in how to handle power in their future lives and careers? Also, how can they help those without power?

DK: You know, thank you for asking that. I’ve been at Berkeley for 25 years and I’m lucky enough to work with medical doctors, health care providers, people in tech, lawyers, judges, athletic teams, etc. And there is now a Cal alumni, Jennifer Granholm, who is a secretary of energy. 

What I would really encourage our readers to think about is that we are in this historic transformation of power in our culture, where people of color are rising to power, women are rising to power. Older models of power are falling by the wayside of sexual harassment and the like. And Berkeley should lead that fight, right as they have. 

And so when Berkeley undergraduates find themselves in positions of power, number one, is they can’t succumb to the power paradox and abuse their power. 

But number two is that I really hope they lead society in moving towards a collaborative model of power. And what that means is to empower the people around you. What it means is to give power to people who ordinarily haven’t had power because of society, our history, people of color, women and the like. What it means is to take a lot of the steps that I write about in the book, about staying close to people, treating people with respect and kindness and empathy. We’re seeing a lot of examples of that change in terms of society. And I hope that Berkeley undergrads keep leading in that way.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].

MARCH 07, 2021

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