Power Can Be Empowering—As Long as It’s Not Abused

'You can use it to say ridiculous things on Twitter or disseminate important ideas'

Richard Nixon took his power too far, but according to a new book power is not a bad thing on principle.

Richard Nixon took his power too far, but according to a new book power is not a bad thing on principle. Photo: Ellsworth Davis for Getty Images)

People tend to think of power in brutalizing, negative terms—many parents cringe at the thought of their children being powerful later in life.

Dacher Keltner wants to change that.

Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley has spent the past 20 years studying human emotion. While conducting research on depression, he started thinking about the disorder as a form of powerlessness.

That revelation was the inspiration for his new book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. Keltner started by altering the conventional definition of “power.”

“For the most part it’s thought of as might or force,” he explained.

Framing power as a form of brute strength, however, doesn’t help with everyday issues like raising a family or dealing with coworkers, according to Keltner.

“Power is really the capacity to alter the states of another person,” he said. “The individual who lifts up the interests of other people and gets them working to advance the greater good has power.”

In Keltner’s view, this definition encompasses everyone from a camp counselor helping a child to a military commander leading a charge.

Dr. Dacher Keltner.

Dr. Dacher Keltner. (Photo: Jigar Mehta)

But as always there’s a catch, which gets to the paradox at the very heart of the book.

“When you feel powerful you think you can do no wrong, get narcissistic, act impulsively and harm the greater good,” Keltner said. “We lie and drive like assholes. Once we feel power, we abuse it.”

There are many examples of this throughout historyKeltner cited President Richard Nixon, who bugged the offices of Democratic rivals during the Watergate scandal, and executives at companies like Enron whose greed led to financial collapse.

“Politicians and Wall Street have captured a lot of wealth and power, and that’s hurting a lot of people,” he said.

But power can also be an empowering force, especially todayKeltner pointed to his own work helping Facebook gather data on social media behavior, in which he relied on engineers and coders as well as fellow researchers.

“It required contributions from many different types of skill sets, and many people who needed to feel empowered,” he said.

In fact, because of social media more people have power than ever before, according to Keltner.

“Information has been democratized,” he said. “You can use it to say ridiculous things on Twitter, or disseminate important ideas.”

Keltner hopes people who read his book use this newfound freedom to stop giving power a bad rap.

“I hope people will feel like there’s an upside to power,” he said. “You can get out and do something innovative with it.”

Power Can Be Empowering—As Long as It’s Not Abused