Friday, September 16, 2016

The Power Paradox (a book review post)

So... Power. What even is it? I think most people would say it's something about how able you are to tell other people what to do and have them do what you're saying and, while Keltner would probably agree with that, he would broaden the definition to include how able you are to make a difference in the world around you. Which, you know, is fine. I can go with that.

What I can't go with is Keltner ascribing the results of his small group experiments to the broader context of society.

So, yes, Keltner does have data, a lot of it, done mostly in labs (and colleges are labs, of a sort), mostly with small groups of people, and, frequently, with groups of people who didn't know each other prior to the experiment. And I can't argue with his results. I see how he came to the conclusions he came to within the contexts of the experiments he ran, but -- and it's a big BUT -- he applies his conclusions to society in general, and, no matter how I look at it, I can't see that any of his ideas, at least the ones dealing with how we gain power, apply to society at large and across other cultures (which don't necessarily have the same views toward power that we do). It's rather like Freud in his generalizing to all people the conclusions he came to from working with a select few of mostly women seeking him for psychological treatment.

Which is too bad, actually, because they are interesting ideas and conclusions.

To put it simply, Keltner believes that we give power to people who promote the greater good of the group. And that's all fine and good, but he also says we remove that power from people when they stop exercising their power for the good of the group and start exercising it for the good of themselves. And, well, I don't know if he's looked around lately, but there are an awful lot of people in power, exercising it for their own good only, who seem to be just fine where they are and in no danger of losing their power anytime soon, which is the weakness of the book.

Power, according to Keltner, is its own downfall, because it is the having of power which causes us to quit looking outward toward ways we can create the greater good and start looking inward to how we can create greatness for ourselves. And it's not that he doesn't get this stuff right, the things that having power causes -- I'm sure he is quite correct -- but he says it's giving into these power impulses that, then, cause us to lose the power we've acquired. That's the part I'm not seeing, these active dynamics he's talking about happening on a societal scale.

He talks about how power is a constant give and take, and he does demonstrate that on a small scale to some extent, but he never even touches on how or why the people in power who are demonstrably out for themselves are able to escape all of these natural punishments and consequences he says we have. It undermines his whole premise. The one thing he mentions that's kind of his out is that he says personal charisma is one of the biggest influencers on how we gain power, which, also undermines his theory of it having to do with contributing to the greater good, and he never talks about how it enables people to retain power after they've begun to abuse it.

The one part of the book he gets right, completely right -- and he gets it right because he deals with this aspect on a societal level -- is the section dealing with the effects of powerlessness on people. Having no power causes stress which leads to a further lack of ability to contribute to society (basically, the definition of power itself, according to Keltner) and poor health. He does nothing, however, to address the issue other than to say that these people need to be empowered.

I'm not going to say that the book doesn't contain some interesting ideas; it does. I will say that these ideas weren't ready to be a book, though. Even if he's onto something. And he might be onto something. But there's no way to apply what he says here to the world at large and no way to apply the principles he's come up with other than to say, "Be excellent to each other." Which, you know, is a great thing to say and something I agree with wholeheartedly, but he needs to offer some practical applications if he wants to write a book about it. Simply saying, "Be empathetic," isn't enough.


  1. I agree... interesting post, Andrew. I always love your thoughts and take on things. (And your humor!) :)

  2. A lot of scientists forget about the real world when it comes to applying their theories.

  3. I think the most important practical reason for teaching and learning history is understanding the nature of power.

  4. One problem I see is the definition of 'power.' If you define 'power' solely as 'the ability to help further the greater good of the people' you are limiting it right off the bat to a definition that helps support your hypothesis -- not a great start.

    Because parents have power over children, as well, just as one example. Even assuming you limit it to intentional power exercised intentionally (i.e., a baby crying all night keeping its parents awake is not exercising 'power' under this definition) power can't be limited to a person acting for the greater good.

    I think a better definition of power is the ease with which you can gratify your own desires. Babies, under that theory, have little to no power, because they are entirely dependent. The rich have virtually unlimited power. Presidents, then, have more or less power depending on how they opt to spend it.

    Under that definition, it'd be interesting to see how people get power. Charisma would help, as would being able to work for the greater good.

    This also takes into account people who seem to have power but who don't, or not as much as they think. Consider an employer faced with a not-very-effective employee. Or a parent of a teenager.

    This author seems to have set up a series of tests and definitions designed solely to support his hypothesis. In terms of scientific accuracy, that's about as correct as me kicking everyone else out of the house and saying "I am the strongest person in the room!"

    1. Briane: Well, no, his definition of power is how able you are to make a difference in the world around you. That difference doesn't have to be for good. But he says we -give- power to people who promote the greater good.

      My point about charisma is often people with a lot of charisma get people to do what they want whether it has to do with the greater good or not. You can see that dynamic in high schools all over the country, because high school students very rarely have the greater good on their minds. And, actually, that pattern starts all the way back in elementary schools. So the gaining of power is something that happens well before there is any greater good being thought of and then just continues on through.

      I think he's taking a very narrow view and attempting to apply it broadly, which is always a mistake.

  5. In that context, though, the argument I suppose would be more that people are misled into thinking something is the greater good.

    Take high school. Let's first assume that kids 'give' power to the popular kids. I think that's an assumption that's way off base, but, then, I don't know how popular kids become popular kids. So assume kids give power to the Populars. Why do they do it?

    I can think of two reasons: first, because they hope the Populars will accept them into the group. But that's not 'the greater good' at all. That's self-interest: "I don't care what happens to Nerdo over there so long as I am not picked on and maybe get to go to parties."

    Second would be because they think the Populars will actually make the whole school a bit better because of who they are. That's sort of the thinking this author seems to have: by giving to the Populars the power to dictate clothing, parties, etc., the school population as a whole will be better off.

    This only works if you work on an assumption that the total good can be divided up in many ways. If 'total good' means 'a rising tide lifts all boats,' giving power to the Populars doesn't help at all: Nerdo (me) doesn't get more popular or have a better life because of it.

    Instead, you have to think of "Total Good" as Units Of Good. Right now, there are, say, 100 Units Of Good. When the kids anoint a Popular kid, he has parties and decrees that Ray-Ban shades are in style and make you cool. Kids who go to the parties and wear Ray-Bans get more Units Of Good, so now there's, say, 200 Units Of Good: The 100 that were previously spread around, plus another 100 given only to the kids who went to the parties in their shades. Under that assumption, the kids are giving power to increase the total good -- but it's back to self-interest, again, as you can't convince me the kids are thinking "Well lots of other people will also be happier," they're just thinking "well I will be happier."

    My dad once said "I'll vote for whoever promises me the most benefits." While that's a sentiment I understand, it's misguided in SO many ways: he meant, of course, 'direct' benefits: social security, etc., not "protection from terrorists" or "a functioning health care system for all".

    But even in the most limited sense, voting to cut ourselves a bigger slice of pie isn't giving power to people who promote the 'greater good,' and I honestly can't think of many people we give POWER to who would fit that defintion. We give power -- in the form of money, sex appeal, and influence -- to movie stars and celebrities like that. We give power to a narrow band of politicians. None of them are people who use that power for the greater good in any but the most abstract way.

    I know his argument; I just think it starts from a misguided definition of power, and finishes with a misguided hypothesis on how people get it.

  6. Oh, and charisma. I think charisma, to get power, has to be able to convince people that the person can do something for them. There are lots of charming people without much power. There are lots of powerful people who have zero charisma. Hillary!, for example, seems to have some sort of NEGATIVE charisma. It's actually impressive how well she's done with her life, given that she seems to have a knack for making people not like her. "I really liked that Hillary Clinton," said nobody, ever.

    Bill Clinton's got charisma to spare, as did George Worst President Ever Bush. But what they had to trade on was (in W's case) a willingness to be a puppet for neocons, and (in Bill's case) a willingness to take the fall for Dems by buying into conservative ideas in order to grab the presidency. All Bill's charm wouldn't have gotten moderates to vote for him if he wasn't pro-Death Penalty and anti-welfare. And W wouldn't have gotten the nod if he'd been the kind of president who would object to Cheney's Shadow Government.

    1. Briane: I don't disagree with you. After hearing the guy speak (on some show on NPR, probably), I was severely disappointed with the book.

      For instance, in Russia, evidently, they really look up to bullies (Trump does very well among Russian-Americans because of this; Trump is a bully); it's part of their cultural concept of power. With that model, power is not given to someone doing the greater good, power is given to the guy who can push the most people around and make them do what he wants them to do. Even if what he is doing is "bad" or "wrong," the view is that he is "strong," and they like that, whether they agree with what he's doing or not. Therefore, they are much more likely to give power to a guy they view as strong, even if they disagree with what he will do with that strength, than to support a guy they agree with but whom they think is weak.

      None of that is addressed at all.

      It was disappointing, to say the least.

  7. It sounds like a fun one...if readers are into pseudoscience and power dynamics. I rather like books that are meant to empower people, v. discussing how people take/accept power from others. (Unless it's a BDSM romance...)
    V :)

    1. Veronica: Well, I think part of the idea here was as a self help book on how you can gain power. Basically: Do things for the greater good, and you will gain enduring power.