The Power of Kindness

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image by Nick Craine

“It is much safer to be feared than loved,” writes Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, a classic 16th-century treatise advocating manipulation and occasional cruelty as the best means to power. Nearly 500 years later, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, the best-selling bedside reading of foreign policy analysts and hip-hop stars alike, would have made Machiavelli’s chest swell with pride.

Here are a few of the laws:

Law 12, Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm Your Victim.
Law 15, Crush Your Enemy Totally.
Law 18, Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability.

You get the picture.

Guided by centuries of advice like Machiavelli’s and Greene’s, we tend to believe that attaining power requires force, deception, manipulation, and coercion. We might even assume that society demands this kind of conduct to run smoothly.

These seductive notions are wrong. A new science of power has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it’s used by people who are attuned to and engaged with the needs and interests of others. When it comes to power, social intelligence–reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions–prevails over social Darwinism.

Why social intelligence? Because of our ultrasociability. We accomplish most tasks related to survival and reproduction socially, from caring for our children to producing food and shelter. We give power to those who can best serve the interests of the group. Leaders who treat their subordinates with respect, share power, and generate a sense of camaraderie and trust are considered more just and fair.

Social intelligence is essential not only to rising to power, but also to keeping it. My colleague Cameron Anderson and I studied the structure of social hierarchies within college dormitories over the course of a year, examining who is at the top and who remains there. We’ve consistently found that it is the socially engaged individuals who keep their power over time.

What is the fate of Machiavellian group members? In our research on different groups, we have asked group members to talk openly about other members’ reputations. We’ve found that Machiavellians quickly acquire reputations as individuals who act in ways that are inimical to the interests of others, and these reputations act like a glass ceiling preventing their rise in power. This aspect of their behavior affected their reputations even more than their sexual morality, their recreational habits, or their willingness to abide by group social conventions.

They also mistakenly believe that power is acquired strategically in deceptive gamesmanship and by pitting others against one another. Here Machiavelli failed to appreciate an important fact in the evolution of human hierarchies: that with increasing social intelligence, a person’s power is only as strong as the status given to that person by others.

In The Prince, Machiavelli observes, “A prince ought, above all things, always endeavor in every action to gain for himself the reputation of being a great and remarkable man.” By contrast, several Eastern traditions, such as Taoism and Confucianism, exalt the modest leader, one who engages with followers and practices social intelligence. In the words of the Taoist philosopher Lao-tzu, “To lead the people, walk behind them.” Science gives the nod to Lao-tzu.

“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said the British historian Lord Acton. A great deal of research–especially from social psychology–lends support to Acton’s claim, albeit with a twist: Power leads people to act in impulsive fashion, both good and bad, and to fail to understand other people’s feelings and desires.

For instance, studies have found that people given power in experiments are more likely than those without power to rely on stereotypes when they are judging others. Predisposed to stereotype, they also judge others’ attitudes, interests, and needs less accurately. Power imbalances may even help explain the finding that older siblings don’t perform as well as their younger siblings on theory-of-mind tasks, which assess one’s ability to construe the intentions and beliefs of others.

When researchers give people power in scientific experiments, those people are more likely to physically touch others in potentially inappropriate ways, to flirt more directly, to make risky choices, to make first offers in negotiations, to speak their mind, and to eat cookies like the Cookie Monster, with crumbs all over their chins and chests.

Perhaps more unsettling is the wealth of evidence that having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths. High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, speak out of turn, and fail to look at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating ways. Surveys of organizations find that most rude behaviors–shouting, profanities, bald critiques–emanate from the offices and cubicles of individuals in positions of power.

My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal cortex (the region of the frontal lobe right above and behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behavior.

This leaves us with a power paradox. Power is given to those individuals, groups, or nations who advance the interests of the greater good in socially intelligent fashion. Yet, having power renders many individuals as poorly attuned to others as your garden-variety frontal lobe patient. What people want from leaders–social intelligence–is what is damaged by the experience of power.

Social behaviors are dictated by social expectations. When we recognize this paradox and all the destructive behaviors that flow from it, we can appreciate the importance of promoting a more socially intelligent model of power. As a result, we’ll have much less tolerance for people who lead by deception, coercion, or undue force. We’ll also start to demand something more from our colleagues, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a coeditor of Greater Good, from which this piece is excerpted (Winter 2007-08). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from 2425 Atherton St., #6070, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720;

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