Updated: 22nd February 2018

How modern power works: less Game of Thrones, more Black Lives Matter

Social psychologist Dacher Keltner, author of The Power Paradox, says the key to success is changing. The Machiavellian rule of the Lannisters is less effective than ground-up collaboration

If you drive a Prius, Dacher Keltner believes, there is an above-average chance that you are not an especially pleasant person. He explains how he came to this conclusion as congenially as he can. It is not a hunch.

One day, near the Greater Good Science Center that he runs in Berkeley, California, Keltner was riding his bicycle, minding his own business, when a black Mercedes almost hit him. Afterwards, he thought about that moment the indomitable motorcar paying no heed to the fragile two-wheeler as a miniature of the power dynamics in daily life, a subject that has occupied his attention for years. Its morality and its deadly and there are laws, he says. Its society in play. And I was like: Thats what were studying, right there.

With his colleague, Paul Piff, Keltner organised a study examining the behaviour of drivers at crossings where pedestrians had the right of way. The kind of car a person drives is a reasonable analogue for their place in the world, and Keltner wanted to see whether there was a relationship between power and good road manners. Cars were coded by their make, prestige and age. One researcher stood at the crossing; another waited out of sight nearby and watched what happened.

Again and again, when drivers in the least prestigious vehicles appeared, they would wait patiently for the pedestrian to cross. Not a single one of the lowest-status cars breached the rules of the road. But at the other end of the spectrum, drivers of BMWs, Mercedes and yes electric hybrid Priuses ignored the pedestrian nearly half the time. After the study was published in 2012, Keltner says, People were writing in and calling up, and there were several calls where people were saying: I drive a Prius. Doesnt that mean I probably dont violate the rules of the road? But Paul did the analysis and the Prius drivers were the worst Theyre morally superior, so they blaze through stop signs.

Prius drivers are morally superior and broke all the rules. Photograph: Alamy

The results gave Keltner particular satisfaction. I love teaching executives this finding, he says. You know, in a way it was a little bit of speaking truth to power, right? You may be in a Range Rover, but were watching you.

Im meeting Keltner at the Cinnamon Club, an Indian restaurant in Westminster beloved of politicians and their acolytes. Its lavish dining room in the repurposed Old Westminster Library provides another set of status indicators. Nearby, Lord Puttnam is talking animatedly over a cooked breakfast. Keltner who may be best known outside psychology circles for his work on Pixars Inside Out, where he advised the filmmakers on the science behind how emotions work in the human brain pokes at a rubbery looking omelette and, I surmise, thinks wistfully of Californian avocado and blueberries. With tanned features framed by extravagant curtains of hair that fall either side of his face, his status as an outsider is immediately telegraphed. He looks like the Dude from The Big Lebowski if the Dude had gone into social psychology.

If the Cinnamon Club is suspicious of Keltner, the feeling is probably mutual: if he had his way, the version of power emblematised by places such as this wouldnt last for long. He has done many studies like the Prius one; put together, they form the basis of his belief in a phenomenon that he would like to illuminate and then undermine. He calls it The Power Paradox, which is also the title of his new book. The theory is simple enough, but he believes it could also be radical.

By and large, Keltner says, we have adhered to a model of power that comes straight out of Renaissance political philosopher Niccol Machiavelli, whose enduring influence causes him no end of frustration. You cannot believe how fundamental Machiavelli is to the way we understand power, he says, sunnily. So I became obsessed with him. When you speak to government leaders, they immediately bring up Machiavelli.

That, Keltner believes, implied an acceptance that power was a basically adversarial, zero-sum construction, a coercive mechanism whose goal was to get other people to do what you want even when their own interests militated against it. This is the version of power we take for granted, the one explored, by means bloodthirsty and conniving, in such current cultural totems as Game of Thrones and House of Cards. Machiavellianism makes for the best literature, Keltner admits, but he doesnt have a lot of time for such stories as guides to reality. This guy comes from 16th-century renaissance Italy. Theres a culture of honour, a revenge-based culture, and its as violent as any place in human history. Well, when you line up the data and say, OK, lets find the Machiavellians and see how they do, they dont do well. They dont do well in organisations and they dont do well in schoolyards.

Lena Headey as ruthless schemer Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. Photograph: HBO/Helen Sloan

Instead of the Machiavellian definition of power, Keltner the title of whose previous book, Born to Be Good, indicates his prevailing optimism wants us to think of another one. When you really look closely at how power operates successfully today, he argues, you find that it doesnt tend to be a tale of Frank Underwoods and Cersei Lannisters exerting their will on the great unwashed, but of collaborators yoking others to their cause by making them stronger. In this analysis, power is not a zero-sum game, but a process of mutual reinforcement, one that we misunderstand by dint of our tendency to seek out the grand personalities who make a history lesson livelier. For ground-up organisations such as Black Lives Matter or the Tea Party or our own Corbynite Momentum movement, this is good to hear. Nearly every social movement begins in the absence of might, Keltner says, and thats one view of history: all these great social changes begin with people who have little opportunity. And power exists in the smallest human relations. The benevolent, consultative Claudio Ranieri might survey his achievements and pizza parties at Leicester City and nod in recognition as well.

Being from Berkeley, Keltner knows a lot of people who are squeamish about power. But, he has concluded, its everywhere, like it or not, and it must not be ceded to the self-interested. It used to be that when I would tell people that I study power, my friends would be like: Euuurgh, I dont want that stuff. And Id be like: Youd better want that stuff.

Niccol Machiavelli (1469-1527). Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

He gestures towards me over his omelette. It exists between you and me, and around this room, and in families and with kids, and its clear that there are many other forms than coercive power. And when you look at decades of data I cite this one long review that was conducted over 40 years its clear that were moving out of coercive power and towards collaborative power. And its just this big shift in our world culture.

So that, Keltner argues, is how we gain power today: by operating on the understanding that its purpose is, as he defines it in the book, about enhancing the greater good. This sounds like very good news. But theres a problem one neatly encapsulated by the Prius driver who buys his car on the understanding that it is better for the environment and comes to love it as a signal of his wealth and virtue. Keltner quotes Lord Acton, who he trusts more than Machiavelli: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The results, he writes, are not pretty. People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children and to communicate in rude, profane and disrespectful ways We gain and maintain power through empathy but, in our experience of power, we lose our focus on others.

Is this corruption inevitable? Keltner thinks not, if only we are more alive to the risks. And when hes trying to show that the usual conclusion of the power paradox can be avoided, Keltner is his own test case. After all, unassuming as he is, he is an indisputably powerful (white) man, an influential scientist from an intellectual family (his mother is a literature professor; his father an artist) with many young and impressionable people in his charge.

Still, he has more context than many in his position. Lucky though his childhood was, he spent part of it in a poor rural town when his mother got a teaching job nearby; growing up from the age of nine in Penryn, northern California, he became acutely aware of the gap between his status and that of his neighbours, of the terrible physical and psychological costs of powerlessness and, conversely, of what he rhapsodises in his last chapter as the empathy, kindness, generosity, respect and inclusiveness that the poor live by in response to the harsher material conditions of their lives. In this section, the book begins to seem like a Trojan horse: a work that pitches itself as a guide to how to get ahead in the office, and winds up as a manifesto for lifting up the dispossessed. And so, now that Keltners ideas are gaining traction, he is at pains to avoid the pitfalls that he has articulated pitfalls (or opportunities) that he sees everywhere.

When you have a two-year-old, you think its all about love, but theres power, he says. Constant power. There is power from the minute the foetus is in the womb trying to maximise its resources to the last moment on your deathbed. Thats just the game. Every interaction has power. What about this conversation, right now? He looks at me and grins. You and I are like Im saying: Hey, man, youre reaching my core constituency, I want you to say good things, and youre trying to get good stuff for your piece. But does it have to be zero sum? Is it win or lose? Or is it non-zero? Can we both gain? So, yeah, theres gamesmanship and strategy in collaboration, too. And its a good thing.

The whole encounter proceeds in this vein. When I raise caveats to his ideas, he describes them back to me as interesting features, rather than inconvenient challenges; again and again, he smilingly praises my questions and acts as if I am much more expert than I am. He uses my name a lot. This is a very enlightening conversation! he says, as if he hasnt been working on the subject for years and dealt with every objection I might make a dozen times already. Its implausible, but completely endearing. When he drives, you suspect, he scans the pavement avidly for pedestrians who may wish to cross.

If it wasnt so charming, it might be unsettling: the one thing he has in common with the Machiavellians is his acute awareness that every interaction is an opportunity to exercise power. As it happens, this is the pursuit of the greater good. Its lucky that most megalomaniacs and despots are constitutionally incapable of such a generous approach. The monster who understands that cheerful allies are his best weapon would be the most dangerous monster of all.

Jeremy Corbyn: nearly every social movement begins in the absence of might. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Not that the traditional model is entirely out of steam. The greatest problems for Keltners theory are the real-world counter-examples. Jeremy Corbyn is not your typical self-aggrandising politician, but reading out voters questions hasnt worked out fantastically well so far; David Camerons more traditional approach to power, in contrast, looks fairly solid. In America, the man who must be considered the political phenomenon of the moment probably thumbs a gold-jacketed copy of The Prince over his Trump Steak dinner. Considering these significant and by no means isolated asterisks to the steady march of collaborative power, its tempting to see this model not as an analysis, but an aspiration: if everyone defined power as a means of enhancing the greater good, that would be lovely, but a great many very powerful people dont. And if power for them is not a means but an end, how does telling them that they have missed the point get us anywhere?

He cackles in recognition. Ive taught this for 15 years, he says, and people would always say: Yeah, this makes sense for my organisation, or I can say this about my family but what about Dick Cheney? And at the peak of their power it was like, man, theyre running roughshod over everything.

But history tells a different story. The Bush administration will go down reputationally as one of the worst presidencies. This isnt a question of values, but of irreversible legacy of doing something that makes a permanent impact. A lot of data shows that they cost us a lot of esteem on the world stage, and that constrained our influence, and their power. And now the American public is sick of dumb interventions like theirs. So their power didnt last. Historians have rated the legacies of presidents, and the consensus is that its the more collaborative ones who have a legacy. Maybe the coercive stuff gets you short-term gains politically, but in the long term, its about who built things. His team did, inevitably, try to test this for themselves. We coded the speeches of 150 US senators for whether they showed elements of virtue or Machiavellianism. And the evidence is that its the virtuous guys who get stuff done.

There must still be the fear, then, that he is a classic case of confirmation bias: the idea of power that he espouses hews too closely to his politics to entirely persuade you that it isnt a call to arms instead of a description. As we finish up, he acknowledges the possibility himself. Thats really interesting, he says, true to form. I always try to stay close to the science, and the answer is that we dont know.

It may simply be that the model that works best to gain power for outsiders is not the one that works best for those who already have it. Thats what he intends to study next. Anyway, even if his ideas are shot through with romantic aspiration, they are no less appealing for it. The Westminster old guard sat all around him may not realise it, but Dacher Keltner and his ideas may pose a severe challenge to their way of doing business. And it gets worse: as he and his cohorts render them obsolete, they will rub it in by being nice to them.

The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence by Dacher Keltner (16.99, Allen Lane) is out on 19 May. To order a copy for 13.59, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99.

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