How Empathy Turns to Tyranny: The Power Paradox

Last Updated:Tuesday, February 6, 2024

UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has spent his career studying the nature of power. His findings fly in the face of much conventional wisdom. 

Keltner’s “power paradox” thesis, articulated in his 2017 book The Power Paradox, suggests that empathy, rather than force, is the most effective means to power. 

Yet, often when one attains said power position, the qualities that helped them to climb the ladder disappear along the way. ‘Bad behavior’ among powerful CEOs and jet-set executives is not uncommon but misuse of power plays out in more nuanced work hierarchies as well—in teams of all sizes and geographical distributions. 

Keltner suggests a negative power complex can only be combated with compassion and a broader self-awareness of power’s ever-present influence. His research offers food for thought for founders, and anyone looking to build a business that works well. 

Dacher Keltner and the California advantage

“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.”

   - Keltner 

Keltner is an expert on the biological and evolutionary origins of emotion. 

His research has dealt extensively with power, social perception, and behavior. One of his enduring theories is that “elevated power leads to behavioral disinhibition and reduced vigilance.” In other words, those with more power often operate in more stereotypical, polarized ways.

These days, Keltner is the Director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory and the Greater Good Science Center, which studies “the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.” 

Beyond the academic world, Keltner is pretty into turning his research into tangible practices for everyday life. He hosts a podcast called “The Science of Happiness” and has even parlayed his understanding of the science of emotions into a gig as a consultant for Pixar’s 2015 movie Inside Out. The movie, in case you haven’t watched it over the shoulder of that kid in front of you on the plane, features characters playing different emotions (fear, disgust, sadness, joy, anger) inside an 11-year-old girl’s head. 

Keltner’s long years in the lab studying social expressions and voice, social ties, and the power of touch were re-jigged for the world of Pixar, helping to craft the movie’s fundamental message of empathy and social intelligence.

Ultimately, Keltner is invested in the “examination of power for every person,” and this is the theme of his most widely read book, The Power Paradox

According to Keltner, your attitude to power dictates whether or not you will have an affair, break the law, have panic attacks, get depressed, die from a chronic illness, or “find purpose in life and bring it to fruition.”  

Parrying the Power Paradox

As the most social species on Earth, many of our behaviors are evolved in relation to the “other” (i.e. in outwardly focused ways). Humans participate in universal social practices that generate enduring social collectives, which explains how cultures and languages can become cohesive entities and survive from generation to generation. Empathy, generosity, gratitude, and storytelling are all necessary components of this humanistic tradition that spans thousands of years of activity.

Consequently, Keltner suggests that power dynamics are everywhere, implicit in all forms of mutual influence. It is the medium through which humans relate to one another. This definition of power nods to the fact that it is not limited to the domain of high-profile figures in dramatic moments of war, politics, scandal, or high-stakes board room meetings. 

In its most benign form, Keltner suggests, power is treated selflessly, wielded for the purpose of mutual empowerment and influencing others to bring about positive change in the world. 

In the other, darker corner, we find another kind of power, egocentric by design and harnessed for self-gratification and abuse. This mode of power departs from an intent to focus on others, manifesting itself in shortsighted and self-seeking behavior. Extreme manifestations of it populate history books, news websites, novels, films, and your Wikipedia search history at 3 AM.

As Keltner notes, apart from the ol’ “fall in love, get married, have kids and live happily ever after” arc of civilized life, society’s other classic three-part social narrative is this: rise to power, abuse said power, and fall from power. 

With that in mind, it’s easy to get hung up on the abusive excesses of monstrous media moguls like Harvey Weinstein, or the outrageous greed and ignorance of execs like Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, who quietly enabled 5,300 employees to commit fraud by creating 2.1 million fake customer accounts. But misuses of power most often come in more conflicted forms, with much less obvious power relations at work than kingmaker CEO vs. aspiring young female actor, or old rich guy vs. white collar employee.

Everyone, for example, has had to deal with the weird, muddied power dynamics of families, even more so if said family has a more complex web of relations, such as step-siblings and step-parents. Consequently, most rational humans grow up to realize that most people are “good and bad,” and often their moral compass changes depending on the time, place, and the people they’re interacting with. 

Keltner’s research helps explain how said opaque power works.

What psychology experiments tell us about power

Keltner is particularly interested in the “leaderless group discussion paradigm.” This is an experimental method that has been used by social psychologists to study how individuals rise to power. It involves getting a bunch of strangers together and then having them work collectively to solve a common problem.

Within about one minute or so, researchers are usually able to tell who has power and who doesn’t. Patterns of influence sort themselves out more-or-less instantaneously, in ways that onlookers can readily perceive. This is manifested in everyday behaviors like speaking up first, answering a problem, strongly asserting an opinion, bringing up a wacky idea that just might work, or making a funny, left-field observation that gets people thinking differently. 

Natural state thought experiments, meanwhile, are all about removing the moral codes of society to try and divine facts about fundamental human nature, namely how power is distributed in groups. 

In other words, these experiments explore the basic premise of Lord of the Flies. But unlike that story, where the violent, bully demagogue seizes control, Keltner suggests that it is the individual who advances the greater good that pretty much always wins. This observation is backed by twenty years of experiments of this type. 

Power is “not grabbed, but is given to individuals by groups,” Keltner says. Groups are generally savvy to abuses of power and are wary of the fakeness and deceit of people who will probably end up constructing self-gratification machines once in power. The notion of the “greater good” is a major dynamic guiding power’s distribution.

Then there’s “the cookie monster” study. In one of Keltner’s studies, he brought in groups of three people, randomly assigning one of them to a leadership role and then giving them a group writing assignment. One hour into the activity, four fresh-baked cookies would be brought out—one for everybody, plus an extra. 

Keltner says the same thing happened every time; at first, everyone ate a cookie and left the last one out of politeness. But who ate the last cookie? Almost always, it was whoever had been assigned the leadership role. 

To add insult to injury, that person would often eat the extra cookie piggy-style, lip-smacking and leaving crumbs everywhere. It’s like that time you went for sushi with your severely Type A friend and watched in horror as they shamelessly inhaled the last rolls on your shared platter without asking.

A note to founders and leaders: power isn’t Machiavellian anymore—it’s collaborative

According to Keltner, when we view power only in terms of force and coercion, we fail to see how it “shapes more ordinary acts of creativity, reasoning, ethical judgment, affection, and emotion.” 

For him, this rough-and-tough realpolitik explanation of power, so famously expressed in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1512), is nothing short of a gross anachronism. Machiavelli was an extreme character living in a time of general mayhem in Italy, where inter-city warfare, murder without consequence, rape, and any other number of horrible behaviors ran rampant; individual human rights were nonexistent. 

We’re no longer living in the Game of Thrones era. This cloak and dagger, kill-or-be-killed attitude is just not relevant in an era of social media, rule of law, and highly complex, transnational societies that compete with one another largely peacefully. 

Because when it comes down to it, power today is simply “the capacity to alter the state of others.” 

 Keltner notes how, if you occupy a leadership position within an organization of any size, you are in a position to alter the economic state of other people on your team. You can adjust their wages up or down, offer or take away their job security, provide skills training (or not), give them bonuses (or not), provide mentorship and connect them with relevant, career-building contacts (or not).

At the same time, power is derived from empowering others. Keltner gives the example of Charles Darwin (why not?), whose world-altering book On the Origin of Species was chock-full of ideas and facts that came from his global network of collaborators. While we all know who Darwin is, and would generally perceive his book as the product of hard work and individual genius, there’s no denying he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without his ceaseless correspondence with neurologists, MDs, missionaries in the middle of nowhere, animal trappers, and other figures with micro-detailed knowledge to share.

Collaborating and empowering

Work has only become more and more collaborative over the years. Half the U.S. workforce is part of a team. Scientific papers are now authored by teams of twice as many people as they were half a century ago, on average.

In a way, the new primacy of collaboration and social networks, set into motion by social changes, communications technology, and social media, have returned us to our communal evolutionary roots. Social collaboration, you see, allowed small enclaves of early humans to survive and expand their territories in the time before The Flintstones

Since power is now embedded in social networks, it follows that empowering the people around you is the best route to your own power. This can take the form of tiny everyday gestures like acknowledging the good work of team members, offering them encouragement, or even just making appreciative eye contact or gestures to say “thank you for your work.” More concretely, it can take the form of offering people responsibilities, resources, and opportunities. 

Keltner notes how power feels. It’s a sense of “enthusiasm, inspiration, and hope,” supported by a big boost of dopamine in the brain. It’s a good feeling and one that most of us will want to come back and enjoy regularly. 

Careful with that power...

Still, we have to practice caution with those groovy sensations. Dopamine and associated feelings of power are also implicated in certain forms of drug addiction (ex. cocaine). On top of that, getting carried away with the feeling of having influence and making a difference can slip into impulsive, manic, and even amoral behavior. 

Bad leadership generates stress, anxiety, resentment, and disloyalty among a team. On top of that, once a bad reputation inevitably finds its way around your industry, it can limit one’s opportunities to exert influence outside the office. 

Being a jerk is a morale destroyer. Keltner notes a recent poll of 800 managers and employees across 17 industries, in which half of the respondents who reported being treated “rudely” at work went on to deliberately slack off and lower the quality of their work. After all, why would you try hard to please someone you have no respect for?

Resist hubris, build a better team

As Keltner has noted, the three-part cautionary tale of power’s hubris is one that gets told over and over. In the world of startups and tech, one only need look at the recent saga of WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann, whose dissociation from everyday company operations led to his sudden, dramatic ousting from the company's leadership

Perhaps more significantly, his mismanagement is set to lead to thousands of people losing their jobs.

While that particular story is about a guy worth over a billion and a huge company, the basic lesson is valid. As Keltner’s work shows us, the most enduring power is positive power that gives agency to those around you. It’s also by far the most rewarding. 

After all, if you can’t literally change the world, why not at least try and positively impact the parts of it you interact with every day—your place of work, your neighborhood, your home. 

Paradoxically enough, the more empathy you practice, the more power you might gain.