How to Avoid Abusing Power

May 21, 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 individual’s 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. Throughout history, making a difference in the world has been seen as one of the most crucial and meaningful aspects of human life.

Polynesians called this sacred force mana. The tribes on the North American plains referred to it as x’iopini. Today we might call it purpose, mission, or calling—but perhaps the best name would be power. Our purpose in life, the specific difference in the world that we are best suited to make, is expressed in this universal experience of power.

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.

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