Who Gets Power — And Why It Can Corrupt Even The Best Of Us

Jun 29, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 1:21 pm

If you've ever visited the palm-lined neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, you've probably noticed that the rich and famous aren't the only ones drawn there.

Stargazers also flock to this exclusive enclave, seeking a chance to peer into — and fantasize about — the lives of movie stars and film directors.

Call it adulation, adoration, idolization: we humans are fascinated by glamour and power.

But this turns out to be only one side of our psychology.

We also feel envious — even resentful of the rich and powerful — and that ambivalence is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history.

This week on Hidden Brain, we're looking at power from different perspectives: First, why we adore the rich, and yet are equally thrilled to watch their marriages crumble in the tabloids. In the second half of our show, we look at how we gain influence, and what happens to us once we have it.

"Power is part of every moment of our social lives," researcher Dacher Keltner says. "We've got to be aware of it. It can lead us to do foolish things, and we should try to do the things that make it a force for good."

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Tara Boyle, Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Renee Klahr, Parth Shah, and Rhaina Cohen. Chris Benderev also contributed to this week's show. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: Welcome to Los Angeles, the celebrity capital of the world. It's a city that conjures palm-lined boulevards, sprawling mansions, luxury cars. At the center of all the glitz - Hollywood. Movie stars aren't the only ones here. Stargazers are drawn here, too, like paperclips to a magnet.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE #1: And point your attention to the left because we are seeing Beverly Hills for the first time - on the left-hand side. Wow, some big houses down there, right?

VEDANTAM: With the Muzak blaring, a handful of people on a celebrity tour peer out their van hoping to glimpse the homes of LA's rich and famous. The guide points out Gwen Stefani's house and a clump of bushes behind which, she claims, is Quentin Tarantino's home. She pulls up near Katy Perry's compound.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE #1: Do I have any Katy Perry fans aboard?


UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE #1: (Singing) Fireworks. OK, well, here's her house. Look up to your left, and you'll see the awning - the red awning. You can't really see. It's right there. But we are right beneath her house. She actually owns the entire corner here. And look at her view. It's amazing, isn't it?

VEDANTAM: One of the tour's most popular sites is the home of Kim Kardashian - well, sort of.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE #1: Kanye and Kim, they needed a house to have their friends over. And on the left-hand side, this is the house they use - rented it for $12,000 a month. There's somebody right behind us, so I can't stop. I'm sorry about that. But that is the house right there. It has its own little swimming pool. Boy, they had some big parties too.

VEDANTAM: Tours like this are big business. Andrew Immordino helps manage the tour company called Star Track. He says not just Americans but people from all over the world sign up for these tours.

ANDREW IMMORDINO: And they kind of want to just get that little feel and that little taste of what it's like to, you know, see the celebrities homes and do all the crazy stuff that you see in the magazines and the televisions.


VEDANTAM: But it's more than just wanting a taste of celebrity culture - the glitz and glamour, the swimming pools, the manicured grounds, the storied homes. Humans hunger for a chance to peer into and fantasize about lives of luxury and extravagance. This extends to our political leaders too. We adore the pomp of state dinners and inaugural balls.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States...


VEDANTAM: We dream of what it must be like when presidents make life-and-death decisions for a nation.


FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people and their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.


VEDANTAM: We fantasize about what it must mean to be fabulously rich and powerful.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Words can't describe how beautiful it was. Everything you saw was breathtaking. And we got to meet his girlfriend Melania, who is amazing as well.


MELANIA TRUMP: Hi, I'm Melania.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Nice to meet you.

VEDANTAM: Call it adulation, adoration, idolization. Humans are prone to suck up to the rich and powerful. But this turns out to be only one side of our psychology. On the other side is something entirely different. Many of us hate the rich because they're rich. We want to see the powerful topple from their pedestals. We enjoy seeing the glamorous fall and fail. The lure of celebrity tours is rivaled only by the popularity of tabloid magazines detailing the rehab trips and broken marriages of those same celebrities. Today on the show, we'll explore our ambivalence towards power and what happens to us when we get power ourselves.

DACHER KELTNER: And it really lends credence to Lord Acton's old observation that I think stands the test of time, which is power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

VEDANTAM: The perils of power - this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.

On a pre-dawn morning, a heist occurred in Paris.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Breaking news this morning - Kim Kardashian robbed at gunpoint in Paris late last night by five men dressed as police officers.

VEDANTAM: The robbers made off not only with Kim K's 20-carat, emerald-cut, diamond engagement ring but other jewels and cash totaling more than $10 million. The news media was sympathetic to Kim's ordeal.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A source close to Kim tells ET the mother of two is still very, very shaken up. Quote, "she thought she was going to die. They put a gun to her head while they were searching the apartment. She was crying, begging them for her life."

VEDANTAM: The sympathy didn't last long especially on social media. Andrea McDonnell is a communications professor who's interested in celebrity culture.

ANDREA MCDONNELL: There's a tweet here that says, quote, "Kim Kardashian was held at gunpoint in a Paris hotel. Man will be charged with not pulling the trigger and saving humanity from mediocrity."

VEDANTAM: Or this post.

MCDONNELL: After years of desperation, Kim Kardashian finally has a reason to be in the news today.

VEDANTAM: There were other snarky comments. Maybe Kim faked the robbery as a publicity stunt. Maybe she faked it, so she could disappear for more plastic surgery. Where was the love, the outpouring of concern from Kim's millions of fans? Why, after a brutal robbery, did people turn on her? Andrea has a theory.

MCDONNELL: Kim Kardashian is someone who has made her whole living out of being famous and employing her fame to make money and really flaunting her success and wealth in various ways. And so when that wealth is quite literally attacked in a very confrontational and personal way, our potential empathy for her - even if we are fans of hers - may be lacking there because of our own potential envy or distaste for some of her personal presentation of wealth.

VEDANTAM: In other words, as much as many of us like seeing the rich and luxurious world of Kim, we don't like the idea that she's rubbing it in our faces, and so we don't mind when she's taken down a few notches. We do the same with our political leaders. We adore the pomp and circumstance associated with high office, but we pounce at the slightest gaffe. Vice President Dan Quayle was all but drawn and quartered when he urged a little boy to add an E to the spelling of the word potato. And Texas Governor Rick Perry suffered a moment of forgetfulness during a presidential debate.


RICK PERRY: The third agency of government I would do away with - the Education, the...



PERRY: ...Commerce, and let's see. I can't - the third - sorry. Oops.

VEDANTAM: That was the end of Rick Perry's role in the national spotlight, at least until President Donald Trump chose him to lead the department he couldn't remember - Energy. Governor Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for president came to a crashing halt when he ended a televised speech with slightly too much enthusiasm.


HOWARD DEAN: We're going to South Carolina, and Oklahoma, and Arizona, and North Dakota and New Mexico. We're going to California, and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota, and Oregon, and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. (Yelling).


VEDANTAM: You get the point. We can adore our leaders one moment and skewer them the next. Not long ago, I was watching "All The Way," a wonderful movie about Lyndon B. Johnson, starring actor Bryan Cranston. There's one scene that stayed with me. It sums up the contradictory feelings humans have toward people in power. LBJ has just been elected president. He walks to an adoring crowd, and he says this to himself.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) Right now, we're going to party like there's no tomorrow because there's no feeling in the world half as good as winning.


CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) But the sun will come up, and the knives will come out. And all these smiling faces will be watching me, waiting for that one first moment of weakness. And then they will gut me like a deer.

VEDANTAM: It's not a bad analogy, given that so much of psychology was formed in the ancient past, when humans lived in small nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers.


VEDANTAM: To understand the contradictory relationship that humans have with power, we need to go back in time - way back to prehistory, to our evolutionary past. One way to do this is to observe the behavior of a close relative - the chimpanzee.


VEDANTAM: As a young woman, the evolutionary anthropologist Anne Pusey walked deep into the Tanzanian forest. She was there as a student assistant to the primatologist Jane Goodall. Anne's job was to observe and record chimpanzee behavior in the wild. Sometimes she'd watch the chimps at a feeding station loaded with bananas. Other times, she'd trail them.

ANNE PUSEY: And following them around was pretty tough because it's, as I said, a rugged place. And so you're going up and down. You're crawling through vines. The parts - if there are parts that the chimps walk on - are small, and you often have to scramble through the vegetation. And if they didn't want to be followed, they could very easily lose you.

VEDANTAM: Over time, Anne began to understand how the chimps engaged with each other. Chimp society is very male-dominated. The head honcho is the alpha male. He's often the center of attention.

PUSEY: The other males will groom him. He's probably groomed more by - than other males are. And the same - the females pay particular attention to the alpha male, as well, partly because they get chased around by him more. So there's certainly probably a benefit to individuals from having a good relationship with the alpha male from their own, you know, point of view of safety and maybe support that they may gain from him.

VEDANTAM: Often, the younger males appear to idolize the alpha.

PUSEY: Some of the males I watched, especially one in particular, just followed the alpha male around. And, you know, he's - the alpha male would do a charging display, and the little male I was watching would sort of trudge along behind him and kick the same buttress of the tree.

VEDANTAM: But the relationship between the alpha and others in the group is more complicated than it might first seem. Christopher Boehm is a cultural anthropologist who also worked with Jane Goodall observing the chimps.

CHRISTOPHER BOEHM: Basically, if you look at the individual chimpanzees and how they behave around their superiors, it's rather ambivalent.

VEDANTAM: You can see this ambivalence each time the alpha male intimidates the other chimps.


BOEHM: He basically goes crazy. He runs around. He erects all of his hair to look as big as possible, uproots trees and throws them, picks up boulders and heaves them in the air, swings aggressively on vines, races around and attacks any member of the group that doesn't show deference by going up a tree in a hurry.

VEDANTAM: What Chris found interesting as he watched the chimps is what happened next.

BOEHM: As they race up the trees, they are screaming, which is a fear vocalization, which tells the alpha male, I'm scared of you, so it's also deference. But as they get up to the top of the tree, they then stop screaming, and they give another call called the waa bark. And a waa sounds something like this - (imitating call) - but ever so much louder. And the waa call is one of defiance and hostility. And so once they're up in the treetops and they know he isn't going to take the trouble to come up and punish them, they all start waaing (ph) at him. And this tells him - and me - that they don't like what he just did because he's basically dominated and frightened them and forced them to run up a tree when they'd rather be on the ground feeding and so on. So in terms of ambivalence - political ambivalence toward the alpha male is pretty easy to identify once you know the species well.

VEDANTAM: In other words, woven into the fabric of adulation and submission are strands of defiance and rebellion. Early humans seem to share this trait. Chris has studied nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes who've had almost no contact with the outside world and whose lives have changed little over thousands of years. What he found again was a deep ambivalence about the powerful. Take, for example, one of the most powerful members of a hunter-gatherer tribe, the skilled hunter.

BOEHM: And people love this guy, but the minute he tries to turn that meat into power - that is, to keep the meat for himself and give it to his cronies and develop power that way - the group will treat him with extreme discourtesy. They may criticize him if it gets too bad. They may ostracize him. If it really gets too bad and the guy is a real despot and is trying to basically take other people's autonomy away, they'll kill him.

VEDANTAM: The great hunter is admired and revered, but if he becomes too big for his boots, he's quickly taken down. In his book "Hierarchy In The Forest," Chris concluded that early human society was marked by a remarkable egalitarianism. The roots of democracy, he concluded, weren't in the American Declaration of Independence or even in ancient Greece. They're woven into the DNA of human beings.

BOEHM: Really, humans are somehow disposed to look up to those who are rich and powerful, and also to subject them to special scrutiny, morally. And again, if you have a leader and you're watching out carefully that he doesn't overdevelop his power, that kind of scrutiny is very important.

VEDANTAM: The fact that human beings have contradictory attitudes towards power is not lost on the rich and powerful. It's one reason handlers work so hard to make leaders and celebrities look down-to-earth and humble. President Reagan was often shown in jeans and flannel shirt, cutting wood on his ranch or saddling up his horses.


RONALD REAGAN: I'm not used to riding with the chest plate on him, and I forget and girth up before I remember.

VEDANTAM: The Kennedys went waterskiing for fun and remembered to bring the media along.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: It's a family outing in Lewis Bay, Hyannis Port, for the Kennedys. The president, accompanied by his convalescing father, his brothers and a full complement of children, relaxes from the cares of Washington with a day on the water.

VEDANTAM: Beloved leaders aren't the only ones who've learned this trick. In 2011, Vogue ran a puff piece about Asma al-Assad and her husband, Bashar. She was the rose in the desert. Together, they were the beautiful down-to-earth couple deeply committed to empowering citizens and Syrian civil society. Two years later, the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people. Or consider this. Decades earlier, various international newspapers wrote about the domestic life of a well-known leader. Readers learned the interior spaces of his Bavarian retreat were painted in various shades of green. There was a portrait of his mother in his bedroom. He breakfasted on milk, bread, honey, oatmeal and cheese.

DESPINA STRATIGAKOS: They talk about his vegetarianism. They talk about his dogs, and how much he loves his dogs and his dogs love him. They talk about how much he loves children.

VEDANTAM: The man was Adolf Hitler. In her book "Hitler At Home," Despina Stratigakos explores how the Nazi propaganda machine created an image of Hitler as a humble man of the people at ease in nature. In 1937, The New York Times Magazine featured a sympathetic glimpse of Hitler living in the mountains, thinking about the destiny of his nation.

STRATIGAKOS: Shockingly, after this 1937 New York Times article, there is - an absolute puff piece appears on August 20, 1939, in The New York Times again, and that one has absolutely no critical edge to it. It is by a woman who I haven't been able to identify who talks about the fact that Hitler loves gooseberry pie and how wonderful the tomatoes are on his table. And it appears, you know, just less than two weeks before Hitler invades Poland.


VEDANTAM: Gooseberry pie, a photo of a waterskiing Kennedy, a president grooming his horses like a cowboy - what these images do is say, don't worry; I may be powerful, but I haven't lost touch with you; we're still connected; we're the same. Thousands of miles from the Bavarian Alps, tourists in Hollywood are balancing the twin impulses we have toward the rich and powerful. As the tour winds through the Hollywood Hills, it comes to a stop, a new one.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE #2: And whether you hate the new president or you love him, I could just tell you this. This is his house on the right-hand side. This is Donald's J. Trump's winter estate here in Beverly Hills, right here on the right-hand side - the house there. And we're going to pull up. The pool's right there. It's the tiniest little pool. Yeah. And here's the servants' quarters back here.


VEDANTAM: Donald Trump's election has ignited the contradictory feelings we have toward the rich and powerful. To his critics, Donald Trump has broken with the precedent of modesty set by many leaders. He's rich. He's powerful. He's famous, and he flaunts it. In the language of evolutionary anthropology, he's the boastful hunter in the tribe. But to his supporters, he's very much a man of the people, someone who's promised to level the playing field, a populist. Today, the political world orbits around him. Congressmen and heads of state tiptoe around criticisms, careful not to go too far. But you can be sure of this - even among his supporters, there are people ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, we're going to look at the other side of power - how people become powerful and what power does to them once they get there. You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week on the show, we're exploring dynamics of power, from the evolutionary roots of our ambivalence toward it...

BOEHM: Basically, if you look at the individual chimpanzees and how they behave around their superiors, it's rather ambivalent.

VEDANTAM: ...To how people become powerful and what power does to them once they have it.

KELTNER: Power does make us a little bit more self-focused. But this can happen to us all. This is just what the mind does when we feel powerful.

VEDANTAM: When you think of a powerful person, what comes to mind?


AIDAN GILLEN: (As Petyr Baelish) Knowledge is power.

LENA HEADEY: (As Cersei Lannister) Seize him. Cut his throat.

VEDANTAM: Shows like "Game Of Thrones" tell us exerting power means harming other people, or at least threatening to. But the researcher Dacher Keltner suggests that it's actually kind and empathetic behavior that leads people to power. It's what happens once they get there that's the problem. Dacher, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

KELTNER: It's great to be with you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: I'm fascinated by the research that you cite in the book, Dacher, that suggests that power shapes nearly all of our relationships. If you put a bunch of 13-year-old kids in a room, you say that power dynamics quickly emerge. And you make the case that kids who are kinder and more empathetic are the ones who quickly assume the mantle of power in the group.

KELTNER: So you're right on both counts, Shankar. I mean, first of all, you know, one of the things that we've learned in the science of power is that, really, power dynamics - who's influencing whom - shape every relationship, from parent-child dynamics to dynamics in the U.S. Senate.

And then, you know, what we've discovered over the past 20 years is probably a little bit counterintuitive, and it challenges older ideas about power, more Machiavellian ideas. And what the science is finding is that kids at school, kids in summer camps, people in colleges, people in organizations, if they are emotionally intelligent and really focus on others and even practice generosity, they rise in social power.

VEDANTAM: I have to say, as I hear that, I have some skepticism. And this might be because you attended nicer schools than I did.

KELTNER: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) But my experience of middle school felt, you know, more emotionally like "The Hunger Games" (laughter.)

KELTNER: (Laughter.)


JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Katniss Everdeen) I volunteer as tribute.

ELIZABETH BANKS: (As Effie Trinket) Our tributes, Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen.

LIAM HEMSWORTH: (As Gale Hawthorne) They just want a good show. That's all they want.

LAWRENCE: (As Katniss Everdeen) There's 24 of us, Gale. Only one comes out.

VEDANTAM: I mean, is my experience an aberration?

KELTNER: Well, I don't know where you went to school, but it tends to be an aberration. You know, so what these studies do is they take a group of seventh graders. You find out who has respect and esteem at the start of the year. You study what their social behaviors are, their social strategies. And then you track how they do in the hierarchy of that seventh-grade class, to use your example.

And, you know, what you find is, yes, the bullies and the Machiavellians, they - the sociopaths, they get a little bit of attention early. But over the long haul - and this is true in other contexts - they don't have as much power as they would like to. And instead, what studies find - now numbering in the dozens - is it's really the connecting kid, the empathetic kid, the kid who's really open and curious who really rises in the esteem and the ranks of the class.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if this really comes down to thinking about power in two different ways.


VEDANTAM: The power that I'm hearing you talk about is really reputational power. You know, I think of Doctors Without Borders, for example, as having reputational power. They don't - you know, they don't cut my paycheck, and they can't fire me. But I pay attention to what they say because I respect them as an organization. On the other hand, then you have coercive power, people who can punish you or people who can take away your life or your freedom. It feels like maybe - is it possible that those two different - there are two different paths to power for those two different kinds of power?

KELTNER: Absolutely. And, I mean, that's a wonderful observation. And so one of the things that the science of power has done, which I report on in "The Power Paradox," is to take a step back and think, what do we really mean by power? You know, we intuitively define it as money. But a lot of things happen in the world that are independent of capital. We might think of it historically as military might. But you can easily come up with counterexamples where immense military might actually produces weakness. And so we have to kind of problematize it. And what the field has done is thought about - one strategy to power that works in certain contexts is a kind of a coercive, top-down, Machiavellian strategy. Another kind is a more socially intelligent strategy that involves some of these things we've been talking about. And, you know, what's really interesting, Shankar, and one of the things that inspired me to write this book, is a lot of data that have been summarized by people like Alice Eagly finding that our conception of power is moving from coercive strategies to more collaborative strategies. So it's one of the reasons I wrote this book.

VEDANTAM: So when you describe this kind of power that is more reputational, by that account you would say, you know, the United States' power in the world is not just a reflection of the strength of its military and the size of its armed forces. It's really about the power of its ideas, its ability to do well in the world. Is that the argument you're making, that this kind of soft power in some ways is more important than the hard power that we've come to associate with power?

KELTNER: Well, this is one of the ideas that really spurred the science of power for the - in our lab and other labs for the past 20 years, which is that, you know, if you think about the influence the U.S. has on the average world citizen, part of it is through the flow of capital and economics. And part of it is, you know, having this expansive military. But a bigger component or dimension to our power is, how do we shape the thinking of people around the world? How do we shape the emotions of people around the world or their - what they deem to be fair or right? And that comes through books. It comes through forms of art. It comes through journalism.


EDWARD R MURROW: As a nation, we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are - the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain't nothing but a hound dog...


JOHN F KENNEDY: I have today signed an executive order providing for the establishment of a peace corps on a temporary pilot basis.


JENNIFER ANISTON: (As Rachel Green) So you were in an I-hate-Rachel club?

BRAD PITT: (As Will Colbert) Yes, he was.

DAVID SCHWIMMER: (As Ross Geller) No, no.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is a moment that the whole pool here and the whole world has been waiting for, Michael Phelps walking out for his 13th gold medal.


KELTNER: You know, I took that thinking of soft power, if you will, which is in some ways harder, and really extended it to the personal realm, which is that as a parent, you know - yeah - I have economic control over my kids. I have - I'm bigger than they are. But really, I also influence them through ideas, through preferences that I enable, through the context that I put them in. So power is much more than economic or military might. It's really - it's how we influence the states of other people.

VEDANTAM: You talk in the book about the story of Abraham Lincoln and cite his rise to power as a classic example of what you're talking about, the skills that you're talking about.

KELTNER: Yeah. You know, one of the things I did, Shankar, you know, in the three years of writing this book - and, really, while I've been doing the science of power - is just to read broadly on the biographies of great leaders, the historical accounts of important social change. And, you know, what I encountered is time and time again that there are these examples, very compelling examples, of great leaders who lead through advancing the interests of other people.

You know, I mean, Abraham Lincoln was such a compelling example. You know, and I love this observation about him of Thurlow Weed, who was a journalist at the time and a close student of the politics of Lincoln's era. And he's like, what is it about Lincoln that accounts for his really unpredicted rise in power? He's a poor guy, awkward, didn't have all the advantages that often give you power.

And he said - Thurlow Weed said, you know, Lincoln sees and hears everybody who comes to him. He just engages in the interests of others. And then, when I read that, and then I heard about the science, for example, of Stephane Cote showing it's really these emotionally intelligent managers in workplaces that rise in the ranks and build strong teams, I saw this nice convergence of evidence.


VEDANTAM: You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week, we're talking about power - how we feel ambivalent toward it, how we attain it and what power does to us once we have it.


CLIFF ROBERTSON: (As Ben Parker) Remember; with great power comes great responsibility.

TOBEY MAGUIRE: (As Peter Parker) Are you afraid that I'm going to turn into some kind of criminal? Quit worrying about me, OK?


LACEY CHABERT: (As Gretchen Wieners) You're wearing sweatpants. It's Monday.

RACHEL MCADAMS: (As Regina George) So?

AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Karen Smith) So that's against the rules, and you can't sit with us.

KELTNER: Power does make us a little bit more self-focused. But this can happen to us all. This is just what the mind does when we feel powerful.

VEDANTAM: Dacher Keltner is a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. He studies power. And he's found something disturbing about the way feeling powerful affects us all.

KELTNER: Well, this was some of the more dramatic work that we engaged in, you know, that's now been replicated in a lot of different places. So - and that's why I called the book "The Power Paradox," which is - you know, if you look at this social science of power, we get power through, you know, the prosocial tendencies that we are endowed with. But then once we feel powerful or we come from a background of privilege and feeling above others, we lose those tendencies. So let me give an example. You know, there are a lot of studies that show that empathetic practices get you power.

So one of my favorites is work by Woolley and colleagues showing, you know, you give teams these complex problems to solve. And it's really the more empathetic individuals that make their team stronger and perform better, right? They're listening well. They're asking good questions. They're paying attention to other people. So empathy makes the team and the individual stronger. And then what we started to show in our lab is once we feel powerful, our capacity to empathize and to know what others are thinking really is diminished.

So in one study, really simple. We - you know, get - bring people to the lab. We have them engage in this exercise where they compare themselves to the - sort of the real poor people of society, and it makes them feel powerful. Or they compare themselves to the - kind of the elite of society, and they feel as a result of that comparison less power. And then we just present them some photos of people expressing different emotions with subtle muscle movements around the eyes like concentration or flirtatious or decisive. And what we find is when you feel powerful, you lose your ability to read emotion in people's facial expressions.

VEDANTAM: Why would that happen?

KELTNER: Well, I mean, there are a couple of deep reasons. One is - you know, and this is just striking research by Keely Muscatell and Sukhvinder Obhi, which is that - you know, Shankar, if I feel powerful, the studies show I just feel less interested in other people, less invested in them. And as a result, the empathy networks in the brain are actually quieted. They are less active. So Keely Muscatell brought people to the lab. She had them sort of think about another student's daily life. And if you come from a position of privilege and power, the classic empathy networks in the frontal lobes of your brain are not even active when you're thinking about another student. So this is a very deep effect of what power does to our empathic capacities.

VEDANTAM: So what you're saying in some ways is that we are empathetic to others in part because that's useful to us. We lack power...


VEDANTAM: ...In many situations, and being empathetic and being aware of others allows us to navigate our social worlds effectively. But when we perceive ourselves having power and privilege, in some ways we don't need to depend as much as we do on others. We don't need to reach out to others. And so those networks shut down.

KELTNER: Yeah. No, really well-put because if you think about, for example, somebody who's poor and doesn't have a lot of resources, they're dependent on other people to get to work, to do a little bit of, you know, ad hoc child care or what have you. So you're dependent on others. And out of that state of mutual dependence, you really with vigilance attend to other people and are aware of what they're doing. And that produces these empathy benefits coming out of less power. And then the compliment, you lose that empathy when you feel less dependent on others and powerful.

VEDANTAM: So one of the paradoxes of this is something that you and others have identified, which is to look at the generosity of people who are rich and poor.


VEDANTAM: And you find some really surprising things.

KELTNER: Yeah. You know, so - again, you know, what studies are finding - and again, this is part of the power paradox, which is that, you know, there is this really interesting literature called competitive altruism. And if you take the average person in a social network and they practice generosity and they share resources or they encourage others, through those acts of generosity they rise in power. People trust them. They esteem them.

You even see this in hunter-gatherer societies where it's really the individual who shares the most food in the hunter-gatherer societies who rises in the ranks. And yet, you know, what we started to find with Paul Piff and other colleagues is once I feel powerful, I prove to be less generous. So in one study, we brought people to the lab who varied in terms of their social class and family wealth. We just gave them a very simple opportunity to share resources with a stranger. And we found it was really the poor who shared more. And higher-power people, more privileged people, shared less.

VEDANTAM: Now, obviously, people who are millionaires and billionaires, they might be philanthropic. And they might give...


VEDANTAM: ...Larger amounts of money. But what you're really saying is it's a proportion of your wealth. For a millionaire to give a thousand dollars is not the same thing as somebody at the poverty line who's giving 50.

KELTNER: Yeah. We always have to be careful about how we interpret these results. And these are just, you know, proportions of sharing and not absolute amounts. And you're absolutely right. But you even get this experimentally. So, you know, in one of our early studies in power, we were interested in, does experimentally produced power lead to kind of the hoarding of resources which we've been talking about? We brought groups of three people to the lab. We randomly assigned one individual to the position of power. And then by design, they went through this experiment. It was kind of boring. And they're writing policies for the university. And we brought in halfway through the study this plate of five chocolate chip cookies. Every member of the group - three people altogether - took a cookie. And so we asked, who took that fourth cookie?


KELTNER: And it was our high-power person who tended to take that cookie. Not only that, but they ate in this kind of impulsive way where their lips were smacking, mouths were open.


KELTNER: Crumbs - it took us seven months to - there's crumbs falling on their sweaters. And again, you know, what this tells us is really two things, Shankar, which is, you know, power does make us a little bit more self-focused in this - you know, you're sharing less. You're keeping more for yourself. You're eating the cookie in an impulsive way. But the other thing I think we shouldn't lose sight of is this can happen to us all, right? This is just what the mind does when we feel powerful.

VEDANTAM: Because of course these were just random people who are brought into the lab. And you randomly picked one of them to assign them a feeling of power.

KELTNER: Yeah, absolutely.

VEDANTAM: You did mention there were five cookies and three people. So what happened to the fifth cookie?


KELTNER: (Laughter) Well, this was where - it was really interesting because, you know, the rules of politeness suggest that you really should not be that uncouth person who takes the last cookie off the plate. And so we did pilot testing for the experiment, and no one would take that fourth cookie. So that's why we added a fifth cookie just to free somebody up to take that second-to-last cookie.

VEDANTAM: So it's fascinating because, of course, what you see in these lab experiments is often reflected on much, much bigger stages where you see people in power abusing that power - you know, having affairs, cheating and, you know, falsifying financial returns. And, you know, at one level, the conventional view I think is sort of to say these are just people who were bad people who rose to the top. But what you're suggesting is actually something more complex and, in some ways, much sadder, which is that these might not be bad people who rose to the top. But these might be good people who rose to the top, and power has made them bad.

KELTNER: Yeah, I mean, that's such a very compelling and sweeping statement about this, Shankar. You know, that does align with how I read this social scientific evidence, which is that - you know, there are dozens of experiments where we randomly assign typical people to either positions of power or less power, and you find these patterns. Where if I'm just randomly given power, and I feel this sense of sort of expansive, you know, euphoria that comes with power and a sense of omnipotence, you know, I speak more rudely. I take resources that are meant for somebody else. I'm more likely to flirt inappropriately. I'm more likely to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior. We have studies showing when you make somebody feel powerful, you're more likely to cheat at a game to win 50 bucks. The list goes on. And it really lends credence to Lord Acton's old observation that I think stands the test of time, which is power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.


VEDANTAM: You've also found the same thing looking at drivers of various cars. I understand you ran an experiment where you stood outside an intersection and saw who stopped at a stop sign.

KELTNER: Yeah. You know, I mean - so I remember one day I was biking to work, and I almost got hit by a black Mercedes. And the guy - you know, and I was in the right. I sort of waited and gone through this four-way stop area in California. And this guy plowed and almost hit me. And he looked at me as if, you know, I was the hoi polloi and should be sort of taken off the road. And I thought, you know, it'd be really interesting to test these ideas about the impulsive actions that power produces by looking at how people drive.

So you know, what we did, in one of the versions of this study, is we put a young Berkeley undergraduate at a pedestrian zone right next to the Berkeley campus. The pedestrian zone is this strip that cuts across a road that is - it gives the pedestrian the right of way. You get to cross the road. It's white stripes. And then we coded. And we had these Berkeley undergrads kind of hiding in the bushes. Our one student was standing at the pedestrian zone. The other student who was coding was noting the make of the car and whether very simply did they stop for the pedestrian, which is law. Or did they blaze through the pedestrian zone? And zero percent of our drivers of poor cars - the Yugos and Plymouth Satellites of the world - drove through the pedestrian zone. Forty-six-point-two percent of our drivers of wealthy cars - you know, the Mercedes and the like - drive through the pedestrian zone.

VEDANTAM: Forty-six percent? Is this something to do with Berkeley?

KELTNER: (Laughter) You know, it's funny. I just got a letter from a guy in Germany who was like, this would not happen in Germany where we really value our Mercedes and BMWs. You know, we've replicated it. It's been replicated in other states. It led people to email me from all manner of contexts. One of my favorites was a Prius driver emailed me and said, well, you know, that's Mercedes. But, of course, Prius drivers abide by the law. So we checked. And Prius drivers were actually the worst.


KELTNER: So you know, and this just fits this larger profile - that I'm sure your listeners are aware of - that there's something about the seductions of power that makes you lose sight of ethics and other people's interests.

VEDANTAM: You talk in the book about leaders who are able to overcome the paradox of power. And we talked earlier about Lincoln and how his rise to power was marked by demonstrations of these positive behaviors. But you also write about how he was able to retain a sense of that kinder, gentler, more empathetic self even as he acquired and wielded great power. Talk about that story and what he did that might be illustrated for the rest of us.

KELTNER: Well, you know, I think that the thing that really is striking about Lincoln's power is - you know, he had a short presidency but he remained focused on the interests of others. He remained focused on uniting disparate parties and really the greater good if you will - that he knew that there was this state of the Union that he was heading toward. And the way that he did it, you know, is - and it just comes through, for example, in Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team Of Rivals" - is he just kept close to not only the dignity of everybody and treated, you know, the warring sides if you will with respect. But he also - and I think this is really important - is that he sort of kept close to, you know, the suffering that was involved and what the costs and stakes were. And that was really foundational to his power. And what you see in a lot of the great leaders is this really commitment to the greater good and the concept of respect and the needs of others.

VEDANTAM: You know, Dacher, you and I have talked before. And as I was reading the book, I remembered something that you had told me in the past, which is you didn't grow up with a lot of power and privilege. And to some extent, you now have some of those things. And I'm wondering if you can talk about your own journey and, you know, how your own journey may have changed you and whether you see yourself affected by the very same forces you describe in this book.

KELTNER: Yeah, you know, I mean, it's so striking. You know, and it just comes back and bites you. And, you know, that - as I've been lucky enough to get a good education and, you know, become a professor and be on this show and have a voice, I find I am just as vulnerable to the power paradox as anybody. You know, I find that when I'm feeling powerful suddenly, my scientific acumen isn't as sharp. I find when I'm feeling powerful, the way I speak to other people is a little diminished.

Here's one of my favorite examples. And this is not a joke. When I was writing the chapter about the car study that we just described about people driving fancy cars or feeling powerful, kind of driving in unethical ways, I went to pick up my daughter who was rock climbing. A bunch of her friends - teenagers - piled into the back of the car. I was feeling powerful and writing this chapter and feeling like a good dad. I was captivated by this sense of my own self-worth. And I drove off and ran over my daughter's best friend's foot.

VEDANTAM: Oh, my gosh.

KELTNER: You know, so - I know. And, you know, I could have cost a lot of serious damage. Fortunately, I did not. But this is part of the lesson of the book, which is that power is part of every moment of our social lives. We've got to be aware of it. It can lead us to do foolish things, and we should try to do the things that make it a force for good.

VEDANTAM: Dacher Keltner, I want to thank you for talking with me today.

KELTNER: It's been great to be with you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Dacher Keltner is a psychologist at the University of California. He's the author of "The Power Paradox: How We Gain And Lose Influence."


VEDANTAM: A few months after I spoke with Dacher Keltner, news broke about a Hollywood executive who was parlaying his power to obtain sexual favors from producers and actresses.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We turn next here to stunning new developments after the flood of accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Nearly 70 women have come forward with accusations.

VEDANTAM: Over many years, Harvey Weinstein is said to have serially harassed multiple colleagues and co-workers. In the months since that story broke, there have been a stream of other stories about powerful men accused of similar misconduct.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Sexual harassment in the workplace is the topic today in our ongoing series.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It's incredible to see, essentially, this tsunami now of accusations...

VEDANTAM: Prominent journalists like Charlie Rose, Bill O'Reilly and Matt Lauer have been among those who have been forced to step down from high-profile jobs in response to the allegations. As I read one story after the other, I couldn't help but think about Dacher's research that power hurts our ability to be empathetic. As stories came tumbling out in the news, I thought about the studies that show that power blinds people to the needs of others. It prompts them to become selfish, narcissistic, even abusive.

Dacher, it turns out, was thinking the same thing. He recently wrote for The Harvard Business Review, powerful men, studies show, overestimate the sexual interest of others and erroneously believe that the women around them are more attracted to them than is actually the case. Powerful men also sexualize their work, looking for opportunities for sexual trysts and affairs and, along the way, leer inappropriately, stand too close and touch for too long on a daily basis, thus crossing the lines of decorum and worse. Abuses of power are not just the result of a few bad apples. They are predictable and recurring. To stop them, we must focus not only on punishing perpetrators but in being alert to the psychological danger of having and wielding power.

In a few weeks, HIDDEN BRAIN is going to look more deeply at the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct. Women have been reporting horror stories for decades. What's prompted the sea change in the way those allegations are heard?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Women especially used to watch other women report and maybe lose their jobs or just not be heard at all or be disparaged. So that is the kind of social proof that used to inform women's decisions about reporting sexual harassment.

VEDANTAM: That's coming up in a few weeks on HIDDEN BRAIN. This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman and Chris Benderev. It was edited by Tara Boyle. We had original music from Louis Weeks and Nick DePrey (ph). Our staff includes Renee Klahr, Parth Shah and Rhaina Cohen. NPR's vice president for programming is Anya Grundmann. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen for my stories on Morning Edition each week on your local public radio station. HIDDEN BRAIN is also a podcast. So be sure to subscribe to us on iTunes, NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. Please also tell your friends about Hidden Brain. We're always looking for new people to find our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.