(2016, Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0-241-25668-8)

Traditionally we see power in a Machiavellian way. That you can coerce or force someone doing what you want through domination, fear or coercion (‘hard power’). This view fails, however, to account for many important changes that have happened. Therefore, Keltner comes with a much more refreshing, and probably better, definition of power: Making a difference in the world by influencing others (which includes ‘soft power’). All relationships prove to be defined by mutual influence, this means that power plays a role in every interaction and every relationship.

Contrary to the Machiavellian view (which must be seen within the context of the extremely violent situation in Italy at the time), power is generally not grabbed, but rather given. Groups have the capacity to grant power to those who advance the greater good. Groups have also the possibility to remove, or undermine that power, for example through gossip. Your power is only as good as your reputation.

Power comes with a problem, however, which Keltner calls the Power Paradox: while we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, we fall in power due to what is worst. Power may seduce us to its dark side, so to say. Power influences how we perceive the world and ourselves.

Handling this Power Paradox depends on finding the balance between our focus on our own desires and our focus on other people. The seduction of power may induce us to lose those skills (through social practices: empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude and telling stories) that enabled us to gain power in the first place.

Kelter defines twenty power principles that are about power dynamics in groups. These he discusses in five chapters, four clustered per chapter around a theme: 1) Power is about making a difference in the world; 2) Power is given, not grabbed; 3) Enduring power comes from a focus on others; 4) The abuses of power; and 5) The price of powerlessness.

The book is extremely accessible and easy to read with countless examples from real life and scientific research, so I suggest you read it for yourself. Let me just pick a few highlights (mostly quotes).

Chapter 1: Power is about making a difference in the world

People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping.

In past decades, there has been a shift away from coercive force as the basis and expression of power, very much because of social changes in the recent past.

Power emerge instantaneously when humans interact. It is context specific, continually shifting, and dependent upon specific actions tailored to the current situation.

An individual’s capacity for influence - power - is found in ordinary actions, tailored to specific contexts that advance the group’s interests.

What appears to be an influential act of an individual typically will prove to be a collaboration of many minds, the action of a social network. 

Keltner quotes Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism: “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 a certain number of people to act in their name”.

If our power is found in our social networks, then it follows that it is based in how well we empower others. And we empower others through daily acts of influence.

Behaviour is infectious.

Chapter 2: Power is given, not grabbed

The Machiavellian view assumes that individuals grab power through coercive force, strategic deception and the undermining of others. Science finds that power is not grabbed but given to individuals by groups. Groups demonstrate an instinctive tendency to give power to individuals who bring the greatest benefit and least harm to individuals, to those who advance the greater good, the collective well-being of a social network or, more broadly the trust or strength of a society.

Despite the complexities, people do have a fairly keen sense in judging whether actions are good or bad for many. Groups are collectively wary of coercive, Machiavellian types, for the single reason that if they are left unchecked, they will undermine the smooth functioning of the group. [note: Keltner might have spent some space here explaining how this sits with the notion of dictators coming into force and staying there for quite some time]

Five social tendencies that contribute to the greater good: enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness, openness.

A person’s capacity to influence is shaped by his or her reputation within a group. Groups shape this in two distinct ways: 1) reputations create opportunities for influence. 2) reputations are a group’s way of making individuals aware of the effects of their actions upon others, increasing the chances they will in the future act in ways that are good for the group.

Status is the esteem an individual enjoys in the judgement of others; it is the positivity of an individual’s reputation. Often status and power go together, but they are separable. It is possible to have power without status and vice versa.

When social collectives elevate the status of individuals in formal acts of recognition (e.g. awards) it inspires others to act in ways that advance the group’s interests.

Gossip is how a social network negotiates and establishes a person’s reputation. It typically targets individuals who seek power at the expense of others. It also flows to those individuals who have the greatest power to define, and damage, the reputations of others.

Social penalties like gossip, shaming, and ostracism are painful indeed and ca easily be misused (in particular by those in power). 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.

Chapter 3: Enduring power comes from a focus on others

Power feels like a vital force. This experience propels the individual forward in one of two directions: towards the abuse of power and impulsive and unethical actions, or towards benevolent behaviours that advances the greater good.

Focus on others works through empathy, giving, expressing gratitude and telling stories that unite.

Good storytelling makes for enduring power: it enhances the interests of others and reduces the stresses of group living. It promotes the greater good, generating shared mirth, levity and joy - all dopamine-rich experiences that build strong ties within social networks.

Chapter 4: The abuses of power

Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. When we lose sight of the other-focused practices that make for enduring power, Lord’s Acton’s thesis prevails.

Absolute power renders us vulnerable to the power paradox because our attention is a limited resource. The first casualty of absolute power is our focus on others, a foundation of enduring power.

Power degrades the path to empathy, like taking the perspective of others. This is a bad thing because the capacity to flexibly move from one’s own perspective to the perspectives of others also contributes to more rigorous problem solving, enhanced innovation, more productive negotiations, more sophisticated reasoning, and even more effective political discourse. Taking multiple perspectives upon a problem gives us new information and insights, making us more likely to arrive at more sophisticated solutions.

Power leads to problematic behaviour, including impulsiveness, incivility and disrespect. Power leads to people seeing themselves as exceptional, making it more likely for them to engage in unethical behaviour, stating that this is acceptable for them (rationalizing) while condemning the same behaviour in others. 

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.

Keeping an eye on the warning signs of the power paradox (when we abuse power, people display stress, anxiety and shame) is a way to transcend the power paradox.

Chapter 5: The price of powerlessness

A short chapter - powerlessness lies at the basis of psychological and medical problems.

Epilogue: A fivefold Path to Power

Keltner concludes with five good recommendations to ‘outsmart’ the power paradox:

  1. Be aware of your feelings of power
  2. Practice humility: to influence others is a privilege; to have power is humbling. Don’t be impressed by your own work, stay critical of it. Accept and encourage the scepticism and the push back of others with an open mind, and encourage it. Remember that others have enabled you to make a difference in the world. There is always more work to do.
  3. Stay focused on others, and give. The more we empower others, the more the greater good is enhanced.
  4. Practice respect. Ask questions. Listen with intend. Be curious about others. Acknowledge them. Compliment and praise with gusto. Express gratitude.
  5. Change the psychological context of powerlessness - through every day acts and quiet revolutions.

For those who don't like to read:

If you want a quick grasp of the book, you can watch this talk at Google: (not as good as the book, but still).