How to Find Your Power (Your Ability to Make a Difference in the World) - And Avoid Abusing It
How to Find Your Power (Your Ability to Make a Difference in the World) - And Avoid Abusing It
By Dacher Keltner / greatergood.berkeley.edu
Jun 2, 2016

For the past twenty years, I have been carrying out experiments to find out how power is distributed in groups. I have infiltrated college dorms and children’s summer camps to document who rises in power. I have brought entire sororities and fraternities into the lab, capturing the substance and spread of individuals’ reputations within their social networks. I have surreptitiously identified which members of groups are gossiped about, and who receive gossip. To chart the experience of power, I have studied what it feels like to be placed in positions of authority.

Findings from this research converge on an organizing idea: Whereas the Machiavellian approach to power assumes that individuals grab it through coercive force, strategic deception, and the undermining of others, the science finds that power is not grabbed but is given to individuals by groups.

What this means is that your ability to make a difference in the world—your power, as I define it—is shaped by what other people think of you. Your capacity to alter the state of others depends on their trust in you. Your ability to empower others depends on their willingness to be influenced by you. Your power is constructed in the judgments and actions of others. When they grant you power, they increase your ability to make their lives better—or worse.

When we receive power, it feels like a vital force. It surges through the body, propelling the individual forward in pursuit of goals. When an individual feels powerful, he or she experiences higher levels of excitement, inspiration, joy, and euphoria, all of which enable purposeful, goal-directed action. Feeling powerful, the individual becomes sharply attuned to rewards in the environment and quickly grasps what goals define any situation. At the same time, surges of power make him or her less aware of the risks that attend any course of action.

This experience of power propels the individual forward in one of two directions: toward the abuse of power and impulsive and unethical actions, or toward benevolent behavior that advances the greater good.

Power makes us feel less dependent upon others, freeing us to shift our focus away from others to our own goals and desires. Power corrupts in four ways:

  • Power leads to empathy deficits and diminished moral sentiments.
  • Power leads to self-serving impulsivity.
  • Power leads to incivility and disrespect.
  • Power leads to narratives of exceptionalism.

The abuse of power is costly in every imaginable way, from declining trust in the community to compromised performance at work to poor health. By contrast, when individuals use their power to advance the greater good, they and the people whom they empower will be happier, healthier, and more productive.

In my experiments, individuals who were kind and focused on others enjoyed enduring power in schools, workplaces, and military units, avoiding the fall from power that is so common in human social life. That enduring power drives from a steadfast focus on others makes sense in light of what we know: Groups give power to individuals who advance the greater good, and they diminish the standing of those who stray from this principle.

How can we stop ourselves from abusing power? What insights can we glean from science so that we avoid mistakes of the past and make the most of our power? The ethical principles that follow are one approach to enabling people to pursue this aspiration.

1. Be aware of your feelings of power

The feeling of power is like a vital force moving through your body, involving the acute sense of purpose that results when we stir others to effective action. This feeling will guide you to the thrill of making a difference in the world.

People who excel in their power—the physician who improves the health of dozens of people a day, the high school teacher who inches her students toward academic success, the writer whose piece of fiction stirs others’ imaginations—they all know this. They feel the rush of dopamine and vagus nerve activation in the purest moments of empowering others and lifting up the greater good.

If you remain aware of this feeling and its context, you will not be entrapped by myths that power is money, or fame, or social class, or a fancy title. Real power means enhancing the greater good, and your feelings of power will direct you to the exact way you are best equipped to do this.

2. Practice humility

Power is a gift—the chance to make a difference in the world. People who enact their power with humility enjoy more enduring power. Ironically, the more we approach our power, our capacity to influence others, with humility, the greater our power is. Don’t be impressed by your own work—stay critical of it. Accept and encourage the skepticism and the push-back of others who have enabled you to make a difference in the world. Remember that others have enabled you to make a difference in the world, and there is always more work to do.

3. Stay focused on others, and give

The most direct path to enduring power is through generosity. Give resources, money, time, respect, and power to others. In these acts of giving we empower others in our social networks, enhancing our own ability to make a difference in the world. Such acts of generosity are critical to strong societies, and empowered individuals are happier. The more we empower others, the greater good is increased.

So give in many ways. This will prove to be the most important foundation not only of your making a lasting difference in the world but of your own sense of happiness and meaning in life.

4. Practice respect

By directing respect toward others, we dignify them. We elevate their standing. We empower them. That all members of a social collective deserve some basic form of dignity is an ancient basis of equality, and it is expressed in our day-to-day lives through respect. Practicing respect requires work. There is no reward people value more than being esteemed and respected. Ask questions. Listen with intent. Be curious about others. Acknowledge them. Compliment and praise with gusto. Express gratitude.

5. Change the psychological context of powerlessness

We can minimize the tendency of some people to feel below others, so toxic to health and well-being, by practicing the first four principles listed above.

We can do more, though. Pick one aspect of powerlessness in the world and change it for the better. The rise in inequality and the persistence of poverty give us many opportunities for such work. Attack the stigma that devalues women. Confront racism. Call into question elements of society—solitary confinement, underfunded schools, police brutality—that devalue people. Create opportunities within your community and workplace that empower those who have suffered disempowerment due to moral mistakes of the past.

Such steps may not feel like the game-changing social revolutions of earlier times, but they are quiet revolutions just the same. In every interaction, we have the opportunity to practice empathy, to give, to express gratitude, and to tell unifying stories. These practices make for social interactions among strangers, friends, work colleagues, families, and community members that are defined by commitment to the greater good, where the benefits people provide one another outweigh the harms they cause.


Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, from which this essay is adapted. He is also the author of Born to Be Good, and a co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct.

3.5 ·
1
Trending Today
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 11,088 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
The Corporation (2003)
145 min · 6,710 views today · The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future...
Coping With Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House
N Ziehl · 2,937 views today · I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,850 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism
Drew Serres · 961 views today · “The creation of today’s market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events but rather of state interference and violence.” – Naomi Klein in The Shock...
22 Documentaries That Tell the Truth About How Government Really Works
Tim Hjersted · 886 views today · And 6 that show how people are responding.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 769 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 617 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
This Woman Gets No Applause...Why? They Are Too Creeped Out...
7 min · 461 views today · Think you aren't being fooled by advertising tricks? Take a look at this so-called expert revealing food marketing's secret weapon. No amount of marketing makes factory farming...
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 413 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 411 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 315 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
The Age of Anxiety
Grace Blakeley · 299 views today · I began to experience the crippling power of anxiety in my third year of university. The panic attacks were one thing, but the most horrifying thing about anxiety, the thing...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 295 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Live Before You Die
6 min · 286 views today · Travelling the length of the country and back again with a pair of horses and gypsy caravan, Live Before You Die is the ultimate horse-drawn road movie, following a band of...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 264 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Regenerative Agriculture: Our Best Shot at Cooling the Planet?
Jason Hickel · 233 views today · It’s getting hot out there. For a stretch of 16 months running through August 2016, new global temperature records were set every month.[1] Ice cover in the Arctic sea hit a...
One "Piece of the Oppressor" That I Have Discovered Within Myself
Tim Hjersted · 223 views today · One "piece of the oppressor" that I have found in myself during my inner activist journeys is my use of shame as a method of engaging with the world's problems. Having learned...
Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More
Josh Jones · 169 views today · Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have a access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization…? Everyone seems to have...
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 163 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
How to Find Your Power (Your Ability to Make a Difference in the World) - And Avoid Abusing It