Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

The Real-Town Murders (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Of all the contemporary science fiction writers, Adam Roberts can most be relied on to deliver a book that combines an engaging story with extensions of current science and technology that really makes you think - and The Real-Town Murders does this perfectly.

Set in the south east of England, a few decades in the future, this book delivers a trio of delights. The main character, Alma, is faced with constant time pressure as she faces physical and mental challenges (including a lovely homage to North-by-Northwest), there is an apparently impossible locked room mystery and there is fascinating speculation about the impact three technologies - AI, nanotechnology and virtual reality - may have on human life and politics.

Roberts' inventiveness comes through time after time - for example, Alma's partner is locked into a genetically engineered nightmare where she suffers a different medical emergency every four hours which only Alma can fix. It's just a shame, in a way, that Marg…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…