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The Power Paradox

How We Gain and Lose Influence

By Dacher Keltner
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The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner

The Power Paradox (2016) draws on a wealth of data from numerous social-science studies over the past 20 years to explore the dynamics of power. Dr. Dacher Keltner gets to the bottom of what power means in everyday life, discusses why so many people lose and abuse their power and explains how it can be used to make the world a better place.

Key idea 1 of 6

Power is about changing lives and it plays a key role in everyday relationships and interactions.

What does it mean to have power? Is it an elusive thing that only belongs to presidents, politicians and celebrities?

The truth is, power is used by everyday people in ordinary interactions – in motivating an employee to do a good job, for instance, or getting your children to eat their vegetables and do their homework.

Whenever someone uses influence to make a difference in the world, that’s large-scale power in action.

The exploits of Thomas Clarkson are a great example of power in action. In 1785, Clarkson was a student at Cambridge University when he won a writing contest with an essay that detailed the horrors of the slave trade. At the time, most European economies relied heavily on the brutal slave trade, and millions were forcibly transported for their labor.

Clarkson’s prize-winning essay was just the start. He was soon writing more pamphlets and letters on the subject and was convincing many people to boycott the sugar being harvested by slaves in British territories. Eventually, these protests were powerful enough that Great Britain’s Parliament outlawed slavery.

Clarkson used power to achieve a huge change, but power also exists within relationships and everyday interactions. For example, the power dynamic between two siblings can also change a person’s life.

During adolescence, an older sibling will often be stronger and smarter, with more education; in short, they have power over their younger sibling. Enjoying this power in early life often pushes older siblings to seek out positions power as they grow older, it also leads them to be generally more traditional and conservative in outlook. On the other hand, younger siblings, who lack this experience of power, will become more cooperative and innovative as adults.

Because power is so ubiquitous, scientists have long studied how it is used. In one study, known as “leaderless group discussion paradigm” experiment psychologists looked into the power dynamics of everyday life. The experiment involved the observation of a group of strangers who were asked to cooperate on solving a problem without any assigned roles or guidance being offered. Fascinatingly, the researchers found that some participants naturally assumed power by being the first to offer their opinions or by encouraging others.

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