Power: A new paradigm to ponder over — and pursue (Book Review)

The Power ParadoxBy Vikas Datta,

Title: The Power Paradox; Author: Dacher Keltner; Publisher: Penguin Random House UK: Pages: 208; Price: Rs 499

It is termed the ultimate aphrodisiac. It is that intense but intangible phenomenon that runs countries, corporations and society and is involved, in some way or the other, in how we relate to each other both professionally and on a personal level. But have we been seeing — and using — power correctly all these centuries?

No, says an eminent psychologist and researcher of human emotions and connections, for power does not, as we think, involve “extraordinary acts of coercive force”. Nor is it the sole preserve of statesmen and dictators, corporate tycoons, ambitious employees or bullies (schoolground or elsewhere).

And above all, as Dacher Keltner argues here, power is intrinsically ensnared in a paradox — in a pattern of social living that is at the heart of our daily interactions and the shapes that our lives will eventually take. “It has profound implications for whether you will have a sexual affair, break the law, suffer from panic attacks, be levelled by depression, die early to a chronic illness, or find purpose in life,” he says.

The power paradox, as he holds in this book, is that “we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall due to power due to what is worst”.

But before Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, goes on to elaborate on the power paradox and how we can overcome it (and why), he first tells us why we have been seeing and using power so wrong so far.

Much responsibility, he says, can be laid at the door of one slim but influential political tract for most understanding of power has been “deeply and enduringly” shaped by Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, in which the 16th century Florentine statesman argues “power is, in its essence, about force, fraud, ruthlessness, and strategic violence”.

But Keltner argues that this is an unusually restrictive — and dated — view, which cannot explain significant events like the abolition of slavery, toppling of dictators, end of apartheid and success of the civil rights movement, or even the social changes brought about by scientific advances, social media, films, etc.

Then what should we see power as? He pitches for “the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks”, thus expanding its scope beyond “rare individuals in dramatic moments of their highly visible lives” or places like the boardrooms, battlefields or the floors of legislatures.

And after the new definition of power — as well of status and control — and its purpose, he goes on to identify the surprising source of power, the way it can be maintained, how it is abused and what problems its lack can lead to.

In his new “science” of power — and powerlessness, which he emphasises is not about mere leadership — Keltner identifies 20 of its principles. He also stresses that they are certainly not about politics — though they can help in understanding of some episodes in leaders from Stalin to John F. Kennedy and also some political dynamics.

The principles — 12 neutral or more or less positive ones and the rest negative — include some counter-intuitive propositions like “power comes from empowering others in social networks”, “groups give power to those who advance the greater good”, “enduring power comes from empathy”, “power leads to self-serving impulsivity” and “stress defines the experience of powerlessness”.

Taking four each per chapter, Keltner discusses these principles at length, with examples drawn from psychological research in the lab and outside, the behaviour of chimpanzees, Charles Darwin’s correspondence, the victory of Abraham Lincoln in the presidential race, William Golding’s unsettling “Lord of The Flies”, and the success of NBA players, among others, to make his case.

His findings may seem to be contradicted by today’s political reality, but as he said that he never sought to analyse politics, but how power works — and can be made to work — among and for us for our betterment.

And this lucid and simple but significant exposition goes on to do exactly that.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)



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