Mindful

You might be wondering: Don’t totalitarian dictators and bullies successfully wield power for long periods of time and do a lot of damage? How does that line up with this notion of survival of the kindest?

It’s true: The coercive, bullying, Machiavellian style can lead to gains in power. Although studies show that bullies are not respected by their peers, are often isolated, and don’t have much sustained influence, the sixth-grade bully can get a lot of attention and influence others, just as the Machiavellian who rises to corporate or political power can make lives difficult and do much harm while they retain power. There are certain contexts, historical periods, and political moments where Machiavellianism and fear-mongering seems to work particularly well. Research I’ve been doing recently suggests that when people feel they have little control in their lives and their economic lives have suffered, they are more likely to be drawn to a coercive leadership style. It also appears that more men than women are drawn to a coercive style.

There are certain moments where fear-mongering seems to work particularly well. My research shows that when people feel they have little control in their lives and their economic lives have suffered, they are more likely to be drawn to a coercive leadership style.

Research shows that this more coercive style tends to get a lot of attention initially, but it doesn’t retain much influence over the long run or garner the widespread, long- term support of colleagues and communities that leads to sustained successes. It leaves legacies of poor ethics and ill repute, such as happened with the Nixon administration.

Studies also reveal that there is a common intuitive distrust, even repulsion, of coercive Machiavellians. And this manifests in social practices that constrain such Machiavellian power, including protest, dissent, mockery, and critical commentary. When these social practices are in place and pursued vigorously, communities can limit the damage bullies and coercers produce.

Studies also reveal that there is a common intuitive distrust, even repulsion, of coercive Machiavellians. And this manifests in social practices that constrain such Machiavellian power, including protest, dissent, mockery, and critical commentary. When these social practices are in place and pursued vigorously, communities can limit the damage bullies and coercers produce.

History is defined by this struggle between contrasting styles of power: a coercive, amoral, even violent one, and a collaborative, cooperative, compassionate one. Martin Luther King, Jr. said he refused “to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Which form of power prevails is really up to us.

This excerpt appeared in the February 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.

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Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and the faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center. He is the author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.

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