Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

The Power Paradox

--by Dacher Keltner (Jul 11, 2016)

Life is made up of patterns. And one pattern kept appearing in scientific studies I've conducted over the past twenty years. It's called the power paradox: we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.

How we handle the power paradox guides our personal and work lives and determines, ultimately, how happy we and the people we care about will be.

Twenty years ago, when I began the studies that uncovered the power paradox, I confronted the question: what is power? To outsmart the power paradox, we need to know what power is. The first surprise that my scientific inquiry produced was this: our culture's understanding of power has been deeply and enduringly shaped by one person -- Niccolo Machiavelli -- and his powerful sixteenth century book, The Prince. In that book the Florentine author argued that power is, in its essence, about force, fraud, ruthlessness and strategic violence. Following Machiavelli, the widespread tendency has been to think of power as involving extraordinary acts of coercive force. Power was what the great dictators wielded; power was embodied in generals making decisive moves on the battlefields, businessmen initiating hostile takeovers, coworkers sacrificing colleagues to advance their own careers, and bullies in the middle-school playground tormenting smaller kids.

But this view of power fails upon careful scrutiny today. It cannot make sense of the many important changes in human history: the abolition of slavery, the toppling of dictators, the ending of apartheid, and the rise of civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements, to name just a few. Society has changed dramatically since Machiavelli's Renaissance Florence in ways that require us to move beyond outdated notions of power. We will be more poised to outsmart the power paradox if we broaden our thinking and define power as the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks.

This new definition of power reveals that it is not something limited to rare individuals in dramatic moments of their highly visible lives -- to malevolent dictators, high-profile politicians, or the jet-setting rich and famous; nor does it exist solely in boardrooms, on battlefields, or on the U.S. Senate floor. Instead, power defines the waking life of every human being. It is found not only in extraordinary acts but also in quotidian acts, indeed in every interaction and every relationship, be it an attempt to get a two-year-old to eat green vegetables or to inspire a stubborn colleague to do her best work. It lies in providing an opportunity to someone, or asking a friend the right question to stir creative thought, or calming a colleague's rattled nerves, or directing resources to a young person trying to make it in society.

Power dynamics, patterns of mutual influence, define the ongoing interactions between fetus and mother, infant and parent, between romantic partners, childhood friends, teens, people at work, and groups in conflict. Power is the medium through which we relate to one another. Power is about making a difference in the world by influencing others. And such power is given to us by others, rather than grabbed.

Excerpted from this article.  Dacher Keltner is a researcher at UC Berkeley, founder of Greater Good Science Center, and speaks about these themes in his latest book on power.

Add Your Reflection:

Send me an email when another comment is posted on this passage.
Name: Email:

Previous Reflections:

On Jul 9, 2016 david doane wrote:

We each have our personal power that we bring to a relationship, and it is at least part of the medium through which we relate to one another.   Owning my personal power makes it easier for the other to own his or her personal power.  I can't make anyone do anything -- I can make it more or less difficult for the other to express or do whatever.  Power isn't given to us by others.  My power is mine; each person's power is their own.  It's my birthright to own my power.  I don't need to grab my power -- it's simply mine to accept or reject.  Satisfaction that I feel from using my power to be of service has helped me view power from a service perspective, and dissatisfaction from using my power in a manipulative, dishonest, coercive way has helped me reject a Machiavellian perspective.

On Jul 11, 2016 Pluto178 wrote:
Power is indeed a strange creature for good or evil having watched people who have been in a position of power change into people who even slow down their own voices to get as much of your attention time as they can, to making regrettable decisions based on how powerful 'they' consider themselves to be. No matter how much that rope pulls you up you can be dropped unceremoniously in a moment........thats when the judgment of how you used that power can take place.........equal rights for all is the most powerful tool, if you are powerful as a by product of what you have achieved rather than as your goal it will be a better type of power put to the good use of all. Never fear power for there is only you that damages its reputation along with your own when you do not use it wisely.  Power can be best friends with arrogance but also with love and thats when you really are powerful. x

On Jul 12, 2016 Jagdish P Dave wrote:

 Power is a relational concept and experience. When we try to control somebody in the orbit of my relationship and feel good, great and superior to the other, we loose our wholesome connection with the other person.Empoweng oneself at the cost of others is the root cause of exploitation causing adversarial relationship. When we use power to help  the other, to be connected with the other on equality basis, and with love in our heart, power becomes a great positive force. It results in giving and sharing rather than taking and controlling.Power can kill and power can heal. One has to make a wise choice.

I work with children and help them to make wise choices in relating to other children and their teachers. When they get caught up in a power struggle situation with another child ot a teacher, I ask them to play a pillow game.In this game. The person who feels like " I am right and he is is wrong'', I ask both the children to take turns and let the other child know that he indeed understand his or her perspective empathetically. The other child  goes through the same process.Listening to each other with an open mind and empathetic heart builds bridges and not walls. We need to build more bridges of empathy, respect and actions.

I use the same model in interpersonal communication and relationship. If we do not  learn and practice such positive  way of working on our relationships on all levels family, community,  economic and political, we are planting and nurturing the seeds mutual destruction.

May we keep our mind and heart open to relate to differences wisely and constructively!


Jagdish P Dave

On Jul 12, 2016 Jayesh G Dalal wrote:

I found this message very useful in my personal interactions. It reinforces another message i received the same morning. I have inserted it below hoping you may find it useful too.

 Bowl of Saki, July 12, by Hazrat Inayat Khan

Commentary by Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan:

Each one has his circle of influence, large or small; within his sphere so many souls and minds are involved; with his rise, they rise; with his fall, they fall. The size of a man's sphere corresponds with the extent of his sympathy, or we may say, with the size of his heart. His sympathy holds his sphere together. As his heart grows, his sphere grows; as his sympathy is withdrawn or lessened, so his sphere breaks up and scatters. If he harms those who live and move within his sphere, those dependent upon him or upon his affection, he of necessity harms himself. His house or his palace or his cottage, his satisfaction or his disgust in his environment is the creation of his own thought. Acting upon his thoughts, and also part of his own thoughts, are the thoughts of those near to him; others depress him and destroy him, or they encourage and support him, in proportion as he repels those around him by his coldness, or attracts them by his sympathy.

Each individual composes the music of his own life. If he injures another, he brings disharmony. When his sphere is disturbed, he is disturbed himself, and there is a discord in the melody of his life. If he can quicken the feeling of another to joy or to gratitude, by that much he adds to his own life; he becomes himself by that much more alive. Whether conscious of it or not, his thought is affected for the better by the joy or gratitude of another, and his power and vitality increase thereby, and the music of his life grows more in harmony.


   ~~~ He who can quicken the feeling of another to joy or to gratitude, by that much he adds to his own life.

The Spiritual Message of Inayat Khan:   books, articles, photos   glossary   search   what's new

On Jul 13, 2016 Kathy Grant wrote:

The question, how do you relate to the notion that power is the medium through which we relate to one another initially caused me to recoil.  I have lived the Machiavelli definition of power.  As a child and young adult, my experience of powerful people is that of aggressive victimization by bigger stronger scary people.   As a young child I understood myself to have power however I often gave my power away.  It was either to avoid conflict because someone was going to grab it away from me any way, or so as not to assume responsibility for it.  It’s interesting when I reflect on my youth I was either denied any power or I was accused of having omnipotent power.  Either I was worthless incapable of anything, or through one mistake or transgression I was capable of great and horrific things (Just look what you did!)  I remember age seven or eight thinking, ‘someday they will realize who I really am and they will be sorry’.   Not sorry that they will feel incredible physical pain, but sorry that they will feel badly about how they treated me.
Based on my past experiences, I believe power requires responsible actions to ensure no one gets hurt. I’m reminded of the great line in the Spiderman movie when Uncle Ben says to young Peter Parker, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. As an adult, in my work, I find myself in a position of power. In fact, I have the power a Machiavellian would dream of.  Perhaps because of my childhood experiences today I am committed to reframing the concept and definition of power for myself and to use my position to interject it into the way business is conducted.   I am in the position to create the work environment that encourages and inspires people to work for the common good.  I choose to harness the power of positivity, love, kindness and respect.  I choose to use the power of kindness to be the medium through which I relate to others.   I “aspire to be someone who has the almost magical power of spreading happiness and confidence wherever he goes” (Norman Fischer).  

On Jul 13, 2016 me wrote:

 Amen!  You tell my story!  Hmmmm ...

On Jul 13, 2016 Amy wrote:

 Love!  Thank you for sharing!  You just spread joy my way!

On Jul 14, 2016 Amen wrote:


On Jul 14, 2016 Namaste wrote:

 I wish you could work with "our world"!  Saw what you speak of just today . . . Lord we needs You!  Praying ...