Avoiding the Perils of Power

by Michael Dorf

A recent episode of the Hidden Brain podcast explores the perils of power with UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, whose book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence reports evidence of a disturbing phenomenon. Contrary to popular belief, megalomaniacs and sociopaths are less likely than other-regarding decent people to acquire power in a variety of settings. That stands to reason if you think about it. A bully can exercise "hard power" through intimidation, but in well-functioning societies and institutions, people will be more willing to give power to those who are likely to exercise it for the common good than to those who will be self-serving. Of course it is easy to think of counter-examples (insert Trump joke here). Like all social science research, Keltner's research points to trends and probabilities.

Even when other-regarding decent people acquire power, however, problems ensue, because Keltner also finds that power corrupts. Or more precisely, while other-regarding behavior and dispositions can help one acquire power, once people have power, they tend to act and think in more self-regarding ways. This too makes sense if you think about it. Powerless people who depend on others need to be attuned to the interests of those others. People at the top, not so much.

The surprising (and somewhat distressing) element of Keltner's work is not that the circumstances of power tend to change people, but that the brain appears to be hardwired to feel greater empathy when a person has less power than when he has more. That's why laboratory studies in which power is assigned randomly quickly produce the phenomenon of power corrupting--or at least of power dulling the sense of empathy.

In the podcast, both Keltner and host Shankar Vedantam use a pretty broad and relative notion of power. One can have power as a high school class president or, as in Keltner's case, as a professor holding a position that is prestigious. Accordingly, the podcast suggested to me a thought about a related peril in academia.

Many years ago, a professor at a top law school commented to me that the problem with this professor's colleagues was that at some point they got it into their heads that the reason to write articles was so that the world would know what they thought. In other words, having achieved power (in the academic world), they stopped caring or thinking about how those with less power perceived things. They simply assumed that they were rightfully at the top of the pecking order and that those lower down would care about what they thought.

I have not undertaken anything like a study to see whether this professor's observation is broadly true. Certainly it is easy to think of examples of faculty who achieve prominence and then mail it in, one way or another--either by churning out work of lower quality than what got them to prominence in the first place or by setting down the pen almost entirely to become talking heads. At the same time, however, it is easy to call to mind counterexamples: scholars who continue to do high-quality work that they intend to stand or fall on its own merits rather than based on the author's reputation.

At the very least, I think it fair to say that it is easy for a public intellectual to fall into the trap of thinking that the world hangs on your every word. You get invited to give lectures and, lacking the time to generate a new paper, you recycle your old ideas or trade in banalities. The conventions of politesse mean that you are well received, so you continue to do so.

How to resist? My first inclination would be to say that one ought at least to be aware of the dangers, but as Keltner relates in an anecdote at the end of the podcast, awareness alone provides insufficient protection against the perils of power. And certainly if the tendency towards self-regard that accompanies power is hardwired in the brain, then correctives will need to be strong.

In this regard, I wonder whether the coarseness of our age--which is baleful in so many ways--is not a boon when it comes to addressing the perils of power. If I (a very minor public intellectual, to be sure) write something stupid or illogical on this blog, in an article, or in one of my columns, readers are happy to call me on it, and the experience undercuts any tendency of my position to lead me to think that I drip pearls of wisdom.