Dacher Keltner | The Power Paradox (Episode 538)

Dacher Keltner | The Power Paradox (Episode 538)

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at University of California in Berkeley, one of the world’s foremost scientists specializing in the study of power, and author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • You don’t have to be Machiavellian to appreciate that Niccolo Machiavelli was the OG power scientist.
  • The imbalance of power is the greatest threat to society (just after climate change).
  • Powerlessness can literally be lethal.
  • Learn how we can increase our power relative to others in a healthy way.
  • What is The Power Paradox, and how does it affect us and society at large?
  • And so much more…


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As human beings, most of us understand to some degree that power — that is, the control, authority, or influence we have over others — is a part of every relationship and interaction. Some of us naturally exude this power, while others get stuck in patterns of powerlessness.

Our guest for episode 538 of The Art of Charm is psychology professor Dacher Keltner, author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. He’s been studying the effects of power since the ’80s, and believes that imbalance of power is the greatest threat to society — just after climate change. Listen on to find out how we can promote a healthier balance of power in our social interactions.

More About This Show

When you hear the word “power” used in reference to social situations, you may get an uneasy feeling spurred on by the manipulation techniques laid out by original power scientist Niccolo Machiavelli in his treatise The Prince. However, there’s a lot more to the dynamics of power than dark Machiavellian strategizing. We really get power by helping others — but this leads to something psychology professor and author Dacher Keltner addresses in his latest book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.

“The Power Paradox is what I think is one of the most important laws of human behavior and it’s this really interesting irony,” says Dacher, “which is that people get power by advancing the interests of other people…and then, the paradox begins. Once you feel powerful, you lose all the skills that advance the interests of others and got you power in the first place.”

We advance the welfare of others — often unconsciously — by sharing resources, cooperating, and collaborating within a social structure. As perhaps an unintended consequence, we find ourselves gaining power. Most often, this power is something that’s given to us, and not something we set out to seize. This runs directly counter to the popular belief that power is attained by becoming a Machiavellian supervillain and using force, manipulation, deception, and strategic ruthlessness to take it at the expense of others.

Perhaps in Machiavelli’s time, when political discourse was literally cutthroat between rivals, the rule of law varied according to who was in charge that week, and torture was commonplace, The Prince was a more accurate assessment of power dynamics. Thankfully, Dacher’s research confirms that the exchange of power tends to proceed with a more genteel approach in this day and age. (Unless you’re in a drug cartel or under the thumb of a murderous warlord — in which case you could probably write your own book about how power works in that world if you’re lucky enough to survive.)

“There are studies showing,” says Dacher, “from the past 40 to 50 years, that power has really shown this dramatic shift from being hierarchical and more top-down to what’s [going on] in Silicon Valley, which is more horizontal and bi-directional and distributed. Power is shifting all the time. We’re worried today in world politics about a little soft rise of fascism. Look what happened in France and Austria and…maybe Donald Trump is this reappearance of one kind of power we thought we were done with. So power’s always shifting.”

We all know what it’s like to spend time in a group. Within a very short amount of time, leaders emerge and power shifts. But who tends to wind up with the most power in such a situation?

“They tend to be dynamic,” says Dacher. “They have a lot of juice, they connect other people, but really interestingly and most importantly, they’re very engaged in the interests of other people. They’re going around patting people on the back. They know where they’re coming from. They encourage others. They throw out great ideas — so they’re just engaged in others.”

This is a general principle that holds true in most groups — whether they’re in the military, on school playgrounds, in finance firms, or even online (as an aside, Dacher does some consulting for Facebook). Individuals demonstrating value to other individuals — or companies demonstrating value to a society — gain power as a direct result.

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about problematic forms of power; the importance of journalism, art, and satire for balancing power in a free society; how reputation and gossip influence the rise and fall of power; how powerlessness activates sensitivity to threat, causes anxiety and violence, increases cortisol, and can literally be lethal; how to reclaim power from bullies and dominators; how status, control, and power differ; the usual motivations behind altruism and philanthropy; the concept of competitive altruism, the empathy behind the unlikely power of Abraham Lincoln; why wealthy and powerful white people constitute the demographic most likely to shoplift, and more.


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