Blog 104. Why scientists have no power

Not electrical power.  The other kind, social power.  The ability to influence other people and events.  What psychologist Dacher Keltner says is the ability to make a difference.  Most of us find that meaning in life comes from making a difference, so most of us want a little power.

In his book, The Power Paradox, Keltner says social power is granted by the group, not grabbed by the powerful.  The group grants power to a person who has empathy, the one who brings out the good in everybody else, the one who improves the status of other people.

So what’s the paradox?

When granted, power feels good, resulting in a surge of dopamine in the brain, says Keltner.  Power corrupts.

Corruption leads to deception, subversion, and domination.  Power brings ambition as demonstrated by Caesar, by Hitler, and by Napoleon—and more recently by the Bush II neocon administration who believed they could purify the entire Middle East.  So where does research psychologist Keltner get his thesis that power is given to one who benefits the group?

In reading the book, I see that Keltner’s social experiments were all conducted on small groups like sororities where people meet face-to-face.  Keltner overlooks large groups.  An intimate group might be ten or a hundred, rarely a thousand, certainly not a million.  In a small group, the voice and personality of an appointed leader are experienced by each member.

What emerges in a large group is a structure—a complex system—with a nature that is not exactly predictable.  Examples are large corporations, the Tea Party, agribusiness.  Power might be grabbed by institutions or dominant individuals.  Perhaps I empower General Mills when I buy Wheaties because the company says Wheaties is the breakfast of champions and I want the adulation that is heaped upon a champion.  (Writing a blog doesn’t generate adulation, so I have to eat Wheaties.)

So what’s the point?

Contrary to Keltner’s thesis, power—big power—anything bigger than chairmanship of the garden club—is rarely granted out of empathy.  Big power emerges when many persons subscribe to a product or when people seek validation for their beliefs. Beliefs are often derived from propaganda, not from experience or evidence.

That’s why—unfortunately—public policy ignores scientific fact.  The scientists have no power.

Scientists aren’t—and can’t form—a political conspiracy.  To a scientist, benefit comes from the small group of persons who understand his/her discovery, not from a public that subscribes to unfounded opinions.

In hopes of informing the public and policy-makers, scientists’ organizations*  urge their members to volunteer at schools and to write popular articles.  A few scientists do indeed engage youth groups and talk to politicians.

But when that happens, it looks like a conspiracy.


  • *  Example: American Geophysical Union, 60,000 members world-wide.