Nice People Gain Power, (Which Makes Them Less Nice)

Cal professor Dacher Keltner studies power — which evidently still corrupts.

Back in September of 2000, professor Dacher Keltner walked into the Cal dormitory he had selected for his latest social psychology experiment. The students had arrived on campus a few days before, and were having their first hall meetings. Like any self-respecting university psychologist, he came armed with pizzas and questionnaires.

Keltner asked the students to rate everyone else living in the hall on various criteria — including how much they were respected, how likely they were to spread malicious gossip, and where they ranked in the informal social hierarchy. Eight or nine months later, he asked the students to do the ratings again, to see who had risen or fallen on the social totem pole.

This is one of the ways in which Keltner, a Cal psychology professor, has studied the thing beggars lust for and tyrants guard jealously: Power.

Keltner is interested in two things: Who gets power, and what power does to people. He recently presented his conclusions in the magazine published by the Greater Good Science Center, the UC institute he founded in 2001. The essay, called “The Power Paradox,” simultaneously encourages and alarms. Keltner believes that social intelligence and empathy — fairly warm and fuzzy attributes — are the keys to propelling people to positions of power. Yet those same traits are diminished, he says, the longer a person stays in a high-status position.

The first conclusion came as a surprise. “I think our Western culture has this Machiavellian view of who gains power,” Keltner says. But whether studying business executives or political groups, “every result we’ve gotten has been the exact opposite,” he says. In his experiments, he found that students who were perceived as liars, gossips, and backstabbers gained no social power. The students who were considered leaders were, in fact, nice guys and gals. “They’re very extroverted,” Keltner says. “They engage with people. They break up conflicts, they tell jokes, they give the pat on the back.”

Keltner’s attempt to rebut Machiavellian and Dick Cheneyian ideas of what it takes to rise in a social hierarchy certainly goes against the conventional wisdom. Think of the ruthless protagonist in the film There Will Be Blood, or consider biographer Robert Caro’s subjects: Robert Moses, New York’s vicious master builder; and Lyndon Johnson, who used every advantage to climb from a Texas farmhouse to the White House. They may have had social intelligence, but they used it to engineer their own success at the expense of others. How, then, can Keltner argue that empathy is the crucial element?

According to Keltner, such contrary examples are a result of cultural progress outpacing evolution. “My research looks at how power structures emerge in informal, small groups,” he says. “These groups are pretty similar to what we were like in our evolutionary history for thousands and thousand of years. There’s a lot of face-to-face contact, and the opinion of three to four people is important. If you’re in a dorm hall and three to four people besmirch your reputation, you’re in trouble.” But in our mass-market society, he says, people who are grasping for certain kinds of power aren’t accountable to a small group. In politics and the media, the power-mad can use all sorts of dirty tricks, while still wooing the multitudes.

It’s also possible that powerfully corrupt people have just spent too much time on top of the heap, he says. Which brings us to the second half of the power paradox.

“I’ve done a whole lot of research on the dark side of power,” Keltner says. “We’ve found that power makes you impulsive and greedy, power makes you stereotype people, and you become unempathetic.” In “The Power Paradox,” he goes so far as to say that people with power “tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes … a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior.” Both powerful people and patients with this type of brain damage engage in rude and abrasive behavior, flirt too directly, and tease in hostile ways.

As for what can be done about this state of affairs, Keltner ends his essay with a plea for less tolerance, asking people to stop accepting deception and coercion from their leaders. He’s also doing his best to spread his ideas at the top. He teaches business executives who are studying at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and has conducted seminars for British and Dutch government officials; as former colonial heavy-hitters, he says, these countries have a long history of thinking about power. “They’re hungry for new models,” he says.

But what about our American leaders? It would seem that there’s no better time for this discussion than during the heated presidential primary campaign. Alas, Keltner is reluctant to apply his research to the current crop of politicians vying for power. “It’s a cliché, the psychologist talking about the politician,” Keltner says. He only offers this crumb: “All reports of Bill Clinton say, regrettably, that he’s a wonderful example of both sides of my research. He has social talents off the charts. But his impulsivity is obvious and costly.”

If Keltner is right and our cultural development has outstripped our judgment’s ability to adapt, we may have to expect more generations of bad decisions about who should control our destinies. Maybe in a few centuries we’ll evolve enough to make better decisions. Or perhaps the powerful will evolve into less brain-damaged creatures.

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