Dacher Keltner on the Power Paradox

Dacher KeltnerIf you take a quick inventory of all the wealthy people and CEOs who’ve made news by being complete, heartless jerks, you’re left with a pretty simple question: who put them in charge? One narrative: Ruthless people win, so it’s the jerks who float to the top. The counter-narrative: power makes us act bad. Most explanations land on some marriage of the narratives, but our next guest has a radically different approach: it’s things like kindness and compassion that make us powerful in our society – but that power makes us the opposite of kind and compassionate.


  • Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California – Berkeley, and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center. His new book is The Power Paradox: how we gain and lose influence.

2 responses to “Dacher Keltner on the Power Paradox

  1. I enjoyed this interview about power for the first some minutes then became so distracted by a “Hey wait a minute, I have a question” thing going on in my head that – with some regret – I stopped listening.

    I’ve explored ‘thriving of individual in context of community’ for some time. I’ve not used ‘power’ as a focus but have accepted generally confirmed notions that individuals who – for whatever reasons – perceive themselves as “naturally” superior in a given setting will tend to act accordingly.

    I’m interested in psychological developmental causes of a perceived “natural right to greater power.” Dacher Keltner touched on multiple causes, beyond money or birth into power families, when he referenced ‘power in relationship dynamics’, and cited two children, with the older sibling either assuming “natural power” relative to younger (or perhaps younger also enabling this … Keltner didn’t get into it). Power dynamics within families as it impacts individual child psychological development especially interest me because individuals are known to carry relationship behaviors learned in childhood into larger communities, the workplace, etc. (I believe these also show up in top-level group dynamics found in corporate and governmental cultures but that’s a longer discussion.)

    Minutes after Keltner pointed out multiple factors that foster what may be considered even unconscious “right to power or authority”, the discussion shifted to examples of people with minimal apparent power who have become important leaders in movements for social change. I’d have been content to stay with the interview at this point IF Keltner once again referenced ‘multiple factors’ that might have been present in developmental experience of these ‘no apparent power but became leader’ individuals. But he gave no mention, asked no questions, of how it came to be that an individual of ‘no apparent power’ nevertheless blossomed into a powerful movement leader!

    My hunch is that most experienced some level of ’empowerment’ encouragement during early formative years. Sibling “order of birth” won’t always produce an oldest child ‘greater empowerment’ experience, so can’t be taken as a hard/fast rule. Family dynamics can vary across time, during birth of different siblings. Rural vs suburban and urban locations, and economics, also make a big difference in exposure and opportunity. Other factors also, such as consistent encouragement from non-family caregivers, can influence a child’s sense of personal empowerment in social relationships. Despite many contrary examples, as a very rough rule of thumb, birth order often bears out as relevant. (Obvious condition – parents have more time to spend with first born infant, grandparents and others too.) In one of his popular lectures to a large student audience, Michael Sandel – to make this very point – asks students to raise a hand if eldest in their families. Very high percentage of hands go up.

    In the post 60’s, up to around year 2000, the ‘very air’ was rich and thick with “empowerment” study, exploration, and practice. Issues of blacks were already on the table, issues of women and Native Americans gained more attention than they’d had – in my experience. I was a ‘middle kid’ classroom teacher, which, it turned out in our district, was uncommon. At that time, statistically, most classroom teachers were eldest, next came youngest … middle kid classroom teachers were almost a rarity. At a large inservice event we were instructed to group ourselves by ‘eldest, youngest, middle’. I was the only teacher in the ‘middle kid’ group; everyone else was support staff. “We” (us middle kids) were described by research of the time as more interested in group activity, group action, and collaboration than in “controlling outcomes” (such as – at the time – was said especially true of first-born developmental behaviors). (This was not necessarily a ‘control freak’ problem, but was hypothesized to arise from eldest developing a kind of personal obligation as well as right to ‘oversee’ situations of others.)

    Possibly as a result of my ‘middle kid’ childhood experiences (I was sort of singled out as not actually having any particular status beyond being a family member), I’ve come to be a passionate student of and encourager for the experience of ‘felt’ confidence and empowerment of absolutely anyone who might in the smallest way psychologically ‘dismiss’ their own value and potential to contribute. I used to argue (with my first born friends) that one of the most important kinds of leadership was to sit down in the center of a leaderless group and invite the group to explore needs, analyze the situation, and share finding the way forward. In other words, I think I’m describing a ‘facilitator’ rather than ‘leader’. I’d came across consensus model decision making – which relies on facilitation – and used it in my grade 3/4 classroom whenever possible, including shaping units of study. Of course I wouldn’t want a team performing surgery to be gathered from the streets … that’s highly specialized knowledge/skill, and there will be someone in that group functioning as ‘leader’. But …I do want many, many more ‘ordinary citizens’ to participate in shaping the direction our society must to to support genuine thriving in thriving communities (on a thriving earth). If we cannot do this, I so regret the waste of talent and potential.

    1. first…I think I’m in love. well done.
      I consider my own first born status as sort of irrelevant, given my weird childhood and anomalous intelligence. Not representative, in other words. However, I have watched my boys(10 & 14) with this sort of thing in mind from the beginning.
      Due to the timing of my descent into cripplehood, my eldest enjoyed a lot more active Dad than my youngest has. The eldest also ended up, without forethought or malice on my part, helping me and my (always working) wife raise his little brother…also due to cripplehood. It was a necessary development, and he has never shirked or complained.
      The result is that he is far more mature for his age than my youngest, who is only now beginning to ask rather those deep questions, and have those remarkably deep insights, that the eldest came to so much earlier in his life.
      The obvious difference between the two is one of responsibility…of being asked to help out, and having what ended up being pretty adult discussions about the why of it all.
      I haven’t fleshed all this out by any means…but your post brought to the surface something I’ve intended to spend more thought on…and gave me some avenues for that thought that I hadn’t considered.

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