Monday, February 1, 2010

Power, Sociopaths, and Social Intelligence: Dacher Keltner on the Paradox of Power


I’m fascinated by the research of psychologist Dacher Keltner re: power, which I’ve recently discovered through Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog.  Keltner notes that a power paradox is at work in many of our social institutions.

On the one hand, psychological research is increasingly demonstrating that most social groups place a premium on social intelligence, when it comes to identifying and rewarding those with the promise to be powerful leaders.  But on the other hand, once many of those identified as leaders assume the reins of power, they begin to behave like sociopaths.  They behave in a way that undercuts their claim to power and negates the social intelligence that placed them in the seat of power in the first place.  Keltner defines the paradox of power as follows: “The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.”

Keltner’s insights rest on the findings of a new science of power, which has demonstrated that “power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly, by people who are attuned to and engaged with the needs and interests of others.” As Keltner notes, “Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.”

The new science of power notes that power flows through all human interchanges—it is first and foremost contractual, and not a commodity owned and exercised by an authority figure over others.  It is contractual because power is inherently relational.  Power defines how we achieve our goals and obtain what we need in social contexts: “To be human is to be immersed in power dynamics.”

As Keltner indicates, his and other researchers’ studies of how power functions in social hierarchies finds that, “[w]hen it comes to power, social intelligence—reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions—prevails over social Darwinism.”  Keltner finds that it is the more dynamic, playful, and engaging members of groups who quickly gain and keep the respect of peers, and who therefore rise to the top of social hierarchies. 

But once such individuals obtain power, they often behave like sociopaths, seemingly lacking empathy as they ruthlessly treat the human beings over whom they are in authority as pawns in political power games rather than persons with human depth and feelings.  The acquisition of power—and this is even more the case when there are no checks on the power of a leader—encourages leaders to act on their whims, desires, and impulses without regard for the effects of  their actions on others.  And so, “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.”

Those who rise to the top and exercise power ruthlessly end up undercutting their authority as power figures—undercutting the very claims on which their power presumably rests—because they imagine they no longer have to demonstrate the acuity of perception or finesse in social interaction that brought them to the top.  As Keltner reports, intriguing research by Stanford psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld into the quality of reasoning of Supreme Court decisions indicates precisely this dynamic at work in the opinion statements of the SCOTUS majority and minority.

Whereas the minority tends to craft its opinion statements carefully, developing complex arguments to support those statements, the majority relies on the sheer force of its ability to determine the court’s decisions to carry the day:

A study led by Stanford psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld compared the decisions of U.S. Supreme Court justices when they wrote opinions endorsing either the position of a majority of justices on the bench—a position of power—or the position of the vanquished, less powerful minority. Sure enough, when Gruenfeld analyzed the complexity of justices' opinions on a vast array of cases, she found that justices writing from a position of power crafted less complex arguments than those writing from a low-power position.

I find Keltner’s work on the paradox of power fascinating for all kinds of reasons.  I’ve noted recently (here, here, and here) the bare-knuckled way in which the Catholic male bloc on SCOTUS is now dictating the decisions of the entire court. 

What I haven’t emphasized—and what many other commentators are pointing to as they monitor the behavior of that bloc—is the depth and cogency of the minority opinions in the recent SCOTUS decisions to block televised coverage of the prop 8 trial in California and to open the floodgates to the control of our political process by corporate money in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  The depth and cogency of the minority opinions in these matters, as opposed to the shallow lack of reasoning in the majority opinions . . . . Much of this commentary goes hand in hand with Gruenfeld’s findings re: how the majority and minority blocs on SCOTUS reason and exercise power.

I’m fascinated by Keltner’s work, as well, because I find it intuitively obvious, after having spent much of my academic career doing administrative work in which I had to interact with both my academic peers and the top leaders of academic institutions.  If those who rise to leadership positions in the academy do so because of some social intelligence that was evident in their pre-leadership careers, that social intelligence commonly evaporates quickly once they are in power. 

What makes this dynamic particularly tragic in the academy is that everything that institutions of higher learning claim to be about hinges on their ability to get groups of scholars and researchers working together, pursuing the big questions together in ongoing academic conversations.  The way in which many academic leaders exercise power radically diminishes the ability of the institutions they lead to teach, to cultivate the intellectual life, and to transmit core civic values to students.

Until that changes—until we begin to reward academic leaders not because they are sociopaths who manage to balance the books by treating faculty and staff as despised objects, but because they energize communities of teachers-scholars—we are going to continue to be in serious trouble as a nation.  A great deal depends, for our future as a nation, on what happens in colleges and universities.

And what is happening right now under the administration of many presidents and corporate-dominated boards is antithetical to education.  And to democracy.

The graphic shows Dacher Keltner with the Dalai Lama.