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How do humans gain power? By sharing it

June 9, 2016 at 7:24 PM EDT
In the past, violence was the quickest route to establishing dominance. But today, people gain influence by advancing the welfare of others, according to Dacher Keltner. The more power people derive from helping others, however, the more likely they are to prioritize selfishness over altruism -- leading to what Keltner calls a ‘power paradox.’ Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: In an era here in the U.S. where the inequality gap has become ever more pronounced, and people are much more conscious of those gaps, assumptions are frequently made about the behavior of the wealthier.

But recent work on understanding power is more complicated and the focus of economic correspondent Paul Solman’s conversation tonight. It’s part of his weekly reporting, Making Sense.

DACHER KELTNER, University of California, Berkeley: Power, new studies in economics are showing, comes from sharing resources.

PAUL SOLMAN: Power comes from sharing, says Professor Dacher Keltner, who studies economic behavior. But the title of his new book is “The Power Paradox.”

DACHER KELTNER: We gain power by advancing the welfare of other people, and yet, when we feel powerful, it turns us into impulsive sociopaths, and we lose those very skills.

MAN: This stretch of park avenue, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is the wealthiest neighborhood in New York City. But this street is about a lot more than money. It’s about political power.

PAUL SOLMAN: We all know it. Wealth buys us what we want, and much of what we want is power, over our own fate and that of others. A 2014 study found that America’s wealthiest are the only group to influence legislation. But money isn’t the only route to clout, says Keltner.

DACHER KELTNER: What studies find is, if you’re enthusiastic and you’re open to new ideas and you listen really well and you express gratitude and you share resources, really simple strategies, you rise in the ranks in just about every context that’s been studied.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, nobody studied Renaissance Florence, right? It may not have been true in the past.

DACHER KELTNER: Machiavelli wrote in what people think may have been the most violent time in human history, very violent period of Renaissance Italy. So, if you wanted to rise to power, you killed people. Right?

And as history’s evolved in those 500 years, we have seen, and really even in the last 40 to 50 years, we have seen this dramatic shift in what it takes to get power.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why would there be such a difference? How is it that we have evolved?

DACHER KELTNER: One is, work has changed. Right? Most work today is much more collaborative, interdisciplinary, complex than it was 40 to 50 years ago.

Another reason power has changed is the influx of people from different cultures in the United States, much more multiethnic. And that’s changed the face of power. And then women, there are more women in leadership positions, and they have a different way of leading.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, evolution, but only up to a point.

DACHER KELTNER: When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. And we feel like we can accomplish just about anything.

And that’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a series of studies we featured here on the “NewsHour” in 2013, Keltner and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that the wealthier and therefore more powerful tend to behave like, well, jerks.

They help themselves to candy meant for children, cheat in Keltner’s lab in a game of chance. And those who drive pricey cars, BMWs and the like, are four times more likely to speed through crosswalks with pedestrians, even though it’s illegal in Berkeley.

DACHER KELTNER: Who’s more likely to think that my time is more important than the safety of the pedestrian? It’s people driving more high-power, wealthier cars.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it’s not just the more affluent who act more entitled. It’s also those induced to feel rich and powerful in the lab, as I experienced in a rigged game of “Monopoly.”

Researcher Paul Piff randomly gave subjects all sorts of advantages over their randomly disadvantaged opponents: more money at the start, twice as much for passing Go, and yet, Piff told us, despite their presumably egalitarian bent going in, this being Berkeley:

PAUL PIFF, University of California, Berkeley: When we asked them afterwards, how much do you feel like you deserved to win the game, the rich people felt entitled.

PAUL SOLMAN: Entitlement, it was demonstrated in one of Keltner’s favorite experiments.

DACHER KELTNER: We brought three people to the lab. We pointed to one person and said, you’re in charge, right? So that person kind of felt powerful. And then they had to do this really boring task. And they’re getting kind of bored. We bring a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Everybody takes one cookie. So the key question is, who takes that fourth cookie? And, indeed, it’s our person in the position of power who reaches out, grabs the cookie and says, that’s mine, eats it.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?

DACHER KELTNER: Well, I mean, I think Lord Acton was on to something, right, which is that there are dozens of studies showing who’s more likely to speak rudely in an organization, high-power people or low-power people? High-power people. Who’s more likely to have sexual affairs? High-power people or low-power people? High-power people.

Who is likely to walk into the store and pocket something that they shouldn’t — that they don’t pay for? And indeed it’s high-power, wealthier people who are more likely to shoplift.

PAUL SOLMAN: And yet social science research on the benefits of generosity is clear.

DACHER KELTNER: If I share resources until you prosper, I feel as much pleasure as if I were to keep those resources for myself. So, it’s been built in to our evolution to derive benefits from being grateful or pro-social. And when we abuse power, we lose those benefits.

PAUL SOLMAN: But if my group becomes stronger because I’m a good leader who shares with the other members of my group…

DACHER KELTNER: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: … doesn’t that present a danger to the world, in a sense that you see in the countries of Europe and even here in the United States, people who are specifically appealing to the group within the country and excluding quite explicitly people who are not in the group?

DACHER KELTNER: Yes. Yes.

It’s worrisome. And I think that people who have thought deep about the evolution of morality say this is one blind spot in our moral predilections, is what makes us good for the group may make us really antagonistic to the other groups that make up the world today.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, hey, Dacher Keltner runs the Greater Good Science Center. So doesn’t he have some solution to the power paradox?

DACHER KELTNER: I always go back to the science.

WOMAN: So you can start the video now.

GIRL: I’m 12 years old. It’s a very rare cancer.

DACHER KELTNER: We have done studies, Paul, in our lab. If I’m led to feel compassion and kindness, the divide between us and them, and I’m talking about between Republicans and Democrats, is smaller.

And the same is true with gratitude, which is that, when people are shown appreciation, when then they are given gifts and they get to express gratitude, kind of the basic metrics of us vs. them tend to be lower. Right? It tends to work against this us-vs.-them divide.

PAUL SOLMAN: To which many of us would say these days, we sure hope so.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, trying to practice kindness and gratitude as much as I possibly can. Not always easy.

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