The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, by Dacher Keltner

The ability to exercise some authority over others can be a force for good, but there is more to it than that, says Manuela Barreto

June 23, 2016
Iraqi family stand detained by US Marines
Source: Alamy
A power play? Keltner says power is not about coercion – but doesn’t coercion change the direction of others’ actions?

Power: is it good or bad? One might venture that it depends, but for psychologist Dacher Keltner, power is the opportunity to do good. Keltner argues that power is given to those who are attentive to others’ needs and, therefore, all those in power have the potential to serve. His paradox of power is that the very qualities that lead an individual to attain power over others are lost once this power has been attained. Having power changes us; we start engaging in a variety of social sins, such as empathy deficits, self-interested behaviour and unethical actions, that contradict the very qualities that led others to grant us power. Keltner illustrates these arguments with engaging personal stories and historical anecdotes woven through a review of scientific research findings, the majority of which are from his lab at the University of California, Berkeley. This approach allows him to connect findings and areas of research that others might not so easily connect: anthropology, evolutionary theory and the social psychology of emotions.

Although this book is well written and easy to read, with sections that are particularly engaging (such as the role of gossip in group regulation), its main weakness is its appealing but restricted view of power. As one reads about the positive power relations described by Keltner, it is hard to sweep away thoughts of other instances where power clearly is something quite different. For example, he argues that power is not about coercion – but doesn’t coercion change the direction of other people’s actions? Social psychologist John Turner proposed that coercion was a prototypical example of power, opposing power to “true” social influence, in the sense that it influences people’s actions but not necessarily their deep-seated beliefs. A more productive approach, therefore, would be to acknowledge that this book deals only with sustainable power, rather than to deny the power of coercion.

The book also does not engage with illegitimate power: indeed, according to Keltner’s new definition of power, this is a contradiction in terms. One does not, however, have to think very hard to come up with examples of individuals who have power that can be regarded as illegitimate, be it because they are regarded as incompetent or precisely because it was not granted by followers. Legitimate and illegitimate forms of power have quite different consequences, but that does not necessarily mean that they do not both qualify as power.

Keltner also fails to consider the numerous forms of power that are intrinsically linked to institutions and social structures, rather than to particular individuals, and how these are perpetuated even when they are disputed by some. And indeed, the most important lacuna in this book is probably its lack of attention to those over whom power is exerted, some of whom may have granted power, while others may have not – as when one nation’s armies affect citizens of other nations. Even the very definition of what is “good” relies on an understanding of who has power over whom. Power can indeed be a means to do good, as Keltner would like to stress, but it is unfortunately not only that, and to neglect this stands in the way of persuading readers of the great potential of power to deliver its promise to do good.

Manuela Barreto is professor of social and organisational psychology, University of Exeter.


The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence
By Dacher Keltner
Allen Lane, 208pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781846146954
Published 17 May 2016

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