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The Perils of Power

Kevin Spacey's depiction of Frank Underwood from "House of Cards" epitomizes the Machiavellian idea of power. But researcher Dacher Keltner argues, that's not actually an effective way to gain influence.
Nathaniel E. Bell
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AP Photo/Netflix
Kevin Spacey's depiction of Frank Underwood from "House of Cards" epitomizes the Machiavellian idea of power. But researcher Dacher Keltner argues, that's not actually an effective way to gain influence.

It's "much safer to be feared than loved." So wrote Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince,his seminal treatise on power. Many centuries later, we still see this idea in our culture – in cyber bullying and blustering politicians, in abusive CEOS and in television's antiheros. We tend to equate power with strength, and popularity with Mean Girls.

But Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, wants to challenge this notion that powerful people are all Machiavellian sociopaths. In his book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Keltner argues that it is those who display kindness, altruism, and social intelligence who rise in social power – from the US Senate right down to the middle school locker room.

"What studies find, now numbering in the dozens, is it's really the connecting kid, the empathetic kid, the kid who's really open and curious, who really rises in the esteem and the ranks of the class," Keltner says.

By this logic, all of our leaders should be kind, helpful, and selfless, right? But we all know that powerful people often abuse their positions.

Dacher Keltner says the old adage that power corrupts seems to be true, in his research and the work of many others.

"There's something about the seductions of power that makes you lose sight of ethics and other people's interests," he says.

"Power is part of every moment of our social lives. We've got to be aware of it. It can lead us to do foolish things, and we should try to do the things that make it a force for good."

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Tara Boyle, Maggie Penman, Chris Benderev, and Jennifer Schmidt. Our staff also includes Kara McGuirk-Allison and Renee Klahr. To subscribe to our newsletter, click here . You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain , @taranoelleboyle , @maggiepenman, @jennyjennyschmi , @cbndrv, @karamcguirk and @reneeklahr . Listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station. and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

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Chris Benderev is a founding producer of and also reports stories for NPR's documentary-style podcast, Embedded. He's driven into coal mines, watched as a town had to shutter its only public school after 100 years in operation, and, recently, he's followed the survivors of a mass shooting for two years to understand what happens after they fade from the news. He's also investigated the pseudoscience behind a national chain of autism treatment facilities. As a producer, he's made stories about ISIS, voting rights and Donald Trump's business history. Earlier in his career, he was a producer at NPR's Weekend Edition, Morning Edition, Hidden Brain and the TED Radio Hour.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.