the power paradox

The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner (Book Summary)

“The Power Paradox” by Dacher Keltner details how we lose and gain influence in our lives. Keltner unpacks our culture’s understanding of power explaining that it has predominantly been shaped by Niccolo Machiavelli and his book “The Prince”. Machiavelli proposed that to gain power we must resort to manipulation and violence. While this view of power still maps to some people it doesn’t reflect the complexity of our current world or the levels of consciousness that have emerged over the last several centuries. The Power Paradox states that we gain power by helping others and lose it when we become overly selfish. Elements of Machiavelli’s power still exist but there is a pathway to power that is radically different. 

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*All sentences in quotations are direct quotes from “The Power Paradox” and are attributed to Dacher Keltner. Bold is added for skimmability. 


What is the power paradox?

  • The Power Paradox is this: we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.”
  • The very practices that enable us to rise in power vanish in our experience of power.”
  • Power makes us feel less dependent upon others, freeing us to shift our focus away from others to our own goals and desires.”


Our Culture’s Understanding of power

  • Our culture’s understanding of power has been deeply and enduringly shaped by one person —- Niccolo Machiavelli — and his powerful 16th century book The Prince.”
  • “In that book power was understood as being about force, fraud, ruthlessness, and strategic violence.”
  • “The Prince was written in a time of great violence.”
  • We will be more poised to outsmart the power paradox if we broaden our thinking and define power as the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks.”


What is power? Status? Control?

  • Power – your capacity to make a difference in the world by influencing the states of other people.
  • “Power is not only the capacity to influence others; it is also a state of mind. The feeling of having power is a rush of expectancy, delight, and confidence, giving us a sense of agency and, ultimately, purpose.”
  • Power is a dopamine high, and these initial feelings can spiral into ways of interacting with others that resemble a manic episode.” 
  • Power is about altering the states of others.
  • “Power is part of every relationship and interaction.”
  • “Power is found in everyday actions.” 
  • “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is “in power,” we actually refer to his being empowered by certain number of people to act in their name.”
  • Status – the respect that you enjoy from other people in your social network; the esteem they direct to you. Status goes with power often but not always.” 
  • “It is possible to have power without status or status without power.”
  • Control – your capacity to determine the outcomes in your life. You can have complete control over your life — think of the reclusive hermit — but have no power.
  • Social class – the mixture of family wealth, educational achievement, and occupational prestige that you enjoy; alternatively the subjective sense you have of where you stand on a class ladder in society, high, middle, or low.”


How we gain power

  • We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks. Our power is granted to us by others.” 
  • “Power is gained and maintained through a focus on others.”
  • Groups give power to those who advance the greater good.”
  • “Groups construct reputations that determine the capacity to influence.”
  • “Groups reward those who advance the greater good with status and esteem.”
  • “Groups punish those who undermine the greater good with gossip.”
  • Groups give us power when we are enthusiastic, speak up, make bold assertions, and express interest in others.” 
  • Enduring power comes from empathy, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories that unite.”


How we lose power

  • The experience of power, minus a focus on others, quickly leads to the abuse of power.”
  • “To lose focus on others can lead to empathy deficits and the loss of compassion, impulsive and unethical action, and rude and uncivil behavior.”
  • “When we are feeling powerful, we can easily rationalize our unethical actions with stories of our own superiority, which demean others.
  • “Reputations prompt the powerful to act in cooperative, altruistic ways. When the powerful lose their focus on what others think of them — a myopia that readily accompanies power — they all too quickly act in impulsive ways that undermine the greater good, thus losing power.”
  • That power leads to self-serving impulsivity is a human universal, transcending cultures, codes, religions, and morals.


Downfalls of power

  • “If Machiavelli’s (largely wrong) saying “It is better to be feared than loved” is the most widely known maxim about power, Lord Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a close second.”
  • “People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children, and to communicate in rude, profane, and disrespectful ways.”
  • “High-power participants ate more impulsively they were more likely to eat with their mouths open and lips smacking and crumbs tumbling down onto their sweaters, apparently unconcerned about what others might be inclined to think.”
  • “The more powerful individuals were more likely to admit the intention to have a sexual affair, and they walked the talk as well: 26.3% had cheated on their spouses, and the unfaithful were mainly people with power, both men and women.”
  • “Every time you say something, you balance your impulse to express your ideas immediately against your appreciation of your listeners and your anticipation of what they might think and want to say. In just about every imaginable way, gaining power alters this balance, inclining us to communicate more disrespectfully and rudely.”


How we combat undeserved power 

  • Gossip typically targets individuals who seek power at the expense of others.”
  • “Social penalties like gossip, shaming, and ostracism are painful indeed and can easily be misused. But they are also powerful social practices, seen in all cultures, by which group members elevate the standing of those who advance the greater good and prevent those less committed to it from gaining power.”


How we justify inequality 

  • The human mind justifies inequalities of wealth and power, indeed any social rank that places some above others, with stories about the unique and extraordinary qualities of those at the top.”
  • Narratives of exceptionalism provide an easier way of thinking about inequality than considering the complex environmental, historical, political, and economic processes that give rise to disparities in wealth.”


How powerless hurts us

  • “Being poor produces a way of responding to life circumstances that, while warm and giving, is continually vigilant to threat and chronically stressed in ways that harm a person’s mental and physical health.”
  • A person’s social class — wealth, education, and prestige — predicts his or her vulnerability to disease.”
  • “To be less powerful is to face greater threats of every kind, especially from people with more power.”
  • “Powerlessness undermines the individual’s ability to contribute to society.”
  • “Powerlessness causes poor health.”
  • Simply moving the body into a posture of powerlessness, led to a rise in cortisol. Striking the pose of power, by contrast, led to decreased cortisol and increased testosterone, a hormone that increases status-elevating behavior.”


How to play with the Power Paradox 

  • Staying focused on the signs of powerlessness, will help us transcend the power paradox in our own lives.”
  • “It pays to do things that dignify the less powerful, that communicate that they are worthy like everyone else” 
  • Be aware of your feelings of power. The feeling of power is like a vital force moving through your body, involving the acute sense of purpose that results when we stir others to effective action. The feeling of power will guide you to feel the thrill of making a difference in the world. Money, fame, class, and titles are just symbols, or opportunities, for making a difference. Real power means enhancing the greater good, and your feelings of power will direct you to the exact way you are best equipped to do this.
  • “Practice Humility. Collectives endow us with power: they most define our identities and the reputations that capture and codify them. To influence others is a privilege. To have power is humbling. People who enact their power with humility enjoy more enduring power. Don’t be impressed by your own work — stay critical of it. Accept and encourage the skepticism and the push back of others with an open mind.
  • “Stay focused on others, and give. The most direct path to enduring power is through generosity. Give resources, money, time, respect, and power to others.”
  • Practice respect. By directing respect to others, we dignify them. We elevate their standing. We empower them.”
  • Change the psychological context of powerlessness. The four previous paths to power are necessary steps in this direction: being aware of your feelings of power, practicing humility, giving and respecting are all means by which, in our families, at work, and in our communities, we can minimize the tendency for some people to feel below others, so toxic to health and well-being.”