Why We're Obsessed with Power.
It's a dog-eat-dog world?
I was watching a movie the other day and something caught my eye.
The dynamics of a wealthy couple toward their young-adult househelp.
It made me wonder why we (humans, I mean) do this. Not to forget the heated recent Twitter debate on horrible bosses (& where to find them?).
Why do we crave power?
But I don’t mean that as the obvious needing some form of control to survive. What happens when we’re already above it? When we’ve gained mastery over our environment and are not subject to animal predators? Why the need to still lord it over our fellow humans?
That’s what we’re getting into today.
Power is defined according to two attributes: (1) the ability to control one's own outcomes and those of others and (2) the freedom to act.
Our everyday lives are shaped by power dynamics, whether we admit it or not.
And different books have been written on the pursuit of power, from how to win a political post to how to win over colleagues at work to how to hex your ex.
But why are we obsessed with power in the first place?
Maybe we don’t trust others. We don’t trust their intentions nor that they would do what’s best for us in a given scenario. We want control.
Maybe it correlates to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After satisfying basics such as food and shelter, power gives us a sense of esteem and/or self-actualisation.
Or maybe we can be less pessimistic like this study which showed that we don’t want power simply for the sake of lording it over others. We want it because we want to direct our own life direction. We’d rather wield the influence ourselves.
Maybe it’s even none of the above and we just want power for the sake of it. At least that’s what almost 30% of these participants revealed in this study.
The most sentimental reason, however, is to do good. So why, then, do good people turn bad when given influence?
Power & the brain
“Power is power,” — Cersei Lannister
I came across this interesting research that used trans-magnetic brain stimulation to assess the effects of power on the brain. Results showed that those primed with power in the social experiment had reduced motor resonance. This, in turn, suggested reduced mirroring.
Well, mirroring is what enables us to have empathy for others.
Could this be why the powerful tend to neglect the powerless? But even more so, is it an entirely powerless (no pun intended) situation?
“Power is gained in advancing greater good,” - Dacher Keltner
Social psychologist Dacher Keltner argues otherwise. He believes that true power needs modesty and empathy, not force and coercion. It’s not impossible. Perhaps the above research is one based on correlation and not cause-and-effect.
Self-awareness is a key first step of many. This allows us to engage our frontal lobe (seat of judgement and reasoning). This study showed that knowledge of this could help with developing empathy on a neurophysiological level, but it’s also dependent on the way it’s done.
Personally, I don’t believe we’re simply (or always) subject to the whims of our brain.
You can also check out Prof. Keltner’s entire essay here and even take the “are you corrupted by power?” test. I dare ya.
Here’s my own whacky theory:
Is this need borne out of fear?
Maybe we’re afraid we either eat or get eaten.
This is also part of my larger theory on our motivation for anything we do as humans, really. Is it based on either of these two extremes — love or fear?
I still don’t have that answer yet.
🔌 Recommendation of the month!
Self-plug but this is an exciting project I’ve had in the works. It’s a 2x a month newsletter column attempting to make sense of cryptocurrency, decentralisation & the web3 space. It’s called Not Sensible (ironic, ey?).
The first essay will be out tomorrow & on why crypto even exists if there’s already the concept of money as we know it.
I’d be really glad if you checked it out. Thanks.