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The Power Paradox - Dacher Keltner ***

I used to read quite a lot of business books years ago, and (not knowing any better) I thought they were pretty good. But then I got into reading popular science. When I then went back to business books, I found that they were tissue-thin. The majority were really little more than a magazine article with a few key points, expanded with lots of padding to make a book. Generally speaking, you can't get away with this in popular science books. But I'm afraid that Dacher Keltner's The Power Paradox does exactly the same thing. What we have here is a magazine article that makes a handful of genuinely interesting points... but nowhere near enough to be a satisfying book.

In essence, Keltner makes four key points:
  1. The traditional Machiavellian idea of power being something that is taken by force and maintained by manipulation belong in the past or in fiction (think House of Cards) - now it's all about acting in ways that improve the lives of others in our social networks.
  2. We get and keep power by thinking of others.
  3. People who gain power often (usually?) become selfish and thoughtless of others.
  4. People who are powerless lead unpleasant lives.
As mentioned above, this quite interesting stuff, but it is hard to make a whole meaty book out of it. Keltner does throw in some studies (in fact, he very frequently mentions the word 'science' as if naming it alone is enough to make what he says more scientific and less fluff), though often the studies seem fairly insubstantial and we get no idea of important matters like sample size etc. A lot of this feels like 'Didn't we know that already?' stuff - things like the revelation that it really is true that power corrupts. 

Perhaps the only really striking piece of information, as evidence for point 3. above, is that Keltner tells us that the wealthy are more likely to shoplift than the poor. This really does seem unlikely enough to be interesting, but there is no real analysis of the evidence nor is there a chance to get in-depth enough to see what's really going on. The odd thing here is, one of the first papers I came across on the subject when I tried to back the assertion up was a 2015 US one from the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, which states 'Economic need appears to be related to shoplifting. People who shoplifted are more apt to have a lower family income, to be unemployed, and to believe that the economic need causes shoplifting. Not all jobless, economically insecure, or poor people shoplift, of course, and conversely, not all people who shoplift are poor.' This seems in direct opposition to Keltner's hypothesis. (And both seemed based on strangely dated data.)

Back on Keltner's key points, I had two real problems. One was that I find it hard to be totally convinced by his first point that power is now all touchy-feely, rather than iron-fisty (excuse the Buffyesque adjectives). When I look at the CEOs of big corporations, or politician millionaires (the US presidential race is currently on, merrily spending bazillions of dollars), I don't see people who got their power by being nice everyone. Quite the reverse. And while I can see the argument that there is also a smaller scale, different kind of power that is all about serving others, that then seems to eat into point 4, in the sense that this point mostly equates powerlessness with poverty, yet points 1 and 2 seems to suggest that you can be both powerful and poor.

The second issue is that I'm not convinced Keltner really addresses the 'power paradox' at the heart of the book - that you get powerful by thinking of others, and then start being really selfish. If that's the case, then what's the answer? Do we try to prevent anyone being powerful? Can you act to prevent people without being powerful, and hence nasty, yourself? Do we remind powerful people to be nice to others or we'll take away their toys? But how can we, if they're powerful? (I know this is why it's a paradox, but there is little point making the observations he makes without identifying a potential way out.)

I'm really not sure after reading the book where this is all going. And that would be fine if this had been the article it should have been. But I'm afraid it just hasn't got enough going for it to make a great book.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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