(March, 2013) “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln
This blog post is a treatise on power, pieced together from recent articles on the subject. I also reference material from books, passages and thoughts I’ve collected over the years. It is by no means a comprehensive treatise on the subject. Having reached a critical mass on the topic, it is time to weave something together that reflects current thinking.
In physics, power is the rate at which energy is used, transferred, or transformed. Energy transfer can be used to do work, and power is the rate at which this work is performed. Power refers to the surge, or immediate release of energy, while work is the long-term effort or accomplishment. For example, a kilogram of coal burns much more slowly than a kg of TNT. TNT releases it much more quickly to deliver more power. But coal provides heat and energy over long periods.
The units of power are in energy divided by time. Power is measured in joules per second, or watts, in honor of James Watt (18th-century developer of the steam engine). Other units of power include ergs per second, horsepower, foot-pounds per minute, kilocalories per hour, and British thermal units (BTUs) per hour. These units of measurement inform us about how powerful something is.
Power and human health
The parallels to humans are intriguing. Some of us resemble coal, and others TNT. Some folks rise swiftly; others gradually, or in spurts and starts. Some are late bloomers, steady-Eddies, or chronic fatiguers. Each of us starts with different sized batteries, and the wattage used up daily varies from person to person. We burn bright as kids, and slow down at some point later in life. Some burn out quickly, or hits snags along the way, while a few are still revving their motors well into old age. Loss of power is a yardstick for aging (as is loss of height). Aliveness is the basic unit of people power. Hence, we are most powerful when most alive.
Slowing down or malfunctioning prematurely is largely a matter of diet and lifestyle. The life of any machine depends on how well it was made, but also on how well it is kept, and the quality of fuel and other fluids it receives. Life forms are complex machines that require thousands of substances to function optimally and sustainably. Consider the thousand species of bacteria in our guts, each making some contribution to our welfare. Their most important task is to neutralize the toxins we produce, or are exposed to. With all the junk we eat, and the overconsumption of food, we not only hurt ourselves, but also those friendly critters that live in harmony with us. Meanwhile, toxins and other junk accumulate along the way. Sooner or later it overwhelms our systems, our fluids dry up, and our bodies age, leaving us short of our true potential. Planned obsolescence is now the norm for machines and humans.
The trick to living longer is to maximize power. Power is made continuously in trillions of cells throughout our lives. Most of it is made in small cellular organelles called mitochondria. These tiny fuel cells are complex machines. Their chief function is to burn fat to create energy, in a process called oxidation. It’s the same process that burns coal, but now at a much slower rate of burning. Oxidation also slowly creates rust. It’s how most things are used up, including people. There is a great potential for oxidative damage to cells that are actively respiring. Our bodies, and our diet, must provide protection to keep mitochondria from burning out, in the form of antioxidants. One important antioxidant is Coenzyme Q10 (a.k.a., ubiquinone or ubiquinol), which is found concentrated inside mitochondria. CoQ10 is normally made by the body from other nutrients. But the elderly, the fatigued, and those taking statins produce less, and could benefit from supplementation. Some people respond miraculously to CoQ10 supplements, especially in combination with acetyl-L-carnitine, which helps transfer fat into the mitochondria for fuel. Other antioxidants and nutrients also play roles in energy production, so it is wise to procure a variety of them in your diet, or with supplements. This is the primary basis for power.
Cultural norms and personal power
Power is also influenced by the environment or cultural context. A recent study out of England shows the extent to which this is true. Participants were given the role of manager or employee, as either a consequential or trivial adviser on university policy. Those in more powerful positions were more easily swayed or influenced than those with less power. Power-holders express their characters more strongly, but are also more susceptible to environmental cues. The implication is that cultural and social norms have power over power holders. Apparently, culture can bring out the best or worst in its leaders (Guinote et al., 2012).
Power and compassion – mutually exclusive?
Power also affects one’s capacity for compassion. In one study, high- or low-power people were separated into random partnerships. After one partner divulged an emotionally painful event, the other partner rated his/her emotions, while connected to an electrocardiogram (EKG). When confronted with another’s suffering, high-power types experienced less compassion and distress, and a lower heart rate, compared to low-power types. High-power types showed less desire to establish friendships with distressed partners. Distressed participants also reported less connection with high-power partners. With great power and prestige come responsibilities and notions that set us apart from those without power. As such, showing less compassion towards others reinforces social power. While powerful people enjoy many benefits and advantages, a diminished capacity for compassion and empathy may put a damper on their interpersonal skills and emotional life (van Kleef et al., 2008).
Nevertheless, a certain degree of detachment is necessary to maintain power. The “Law of Detachment” is one of the cornerstones of spiritual success, according to Deepak Chopra. Those seeking power are frequently confronted with rejection and loss, yet detaching from outcome is a useful way to save face. Therapists and health professional must avoid getting too caught up in others’ miseries to keep from burning out. Taking on others’ negativity is self-defeating, while deflecting it is basic self-preservation. On a broader scale, detachment is about allowing freedom for oneself and others. It is about being open to a wealth of choices, without high expectations that disappoint. It is about factoring in the uncertainty in all things. Those who master the wisdom of uncertainty have more power over their lives.
Power and the good life
There is a popular belief that power can lead to unhappiness or loneliness. But this notion may be largely untrue according to new research. Holding a position of authority actually enhances subjective well-being through an increased feeling of authenticity. The powerful “navigate their lives in congruence with their internal desires and inclinations”. They feel more themselves, and are more content. In one study, 350 participants were surveyed to determine if feelings of power are associated with well-being at work, with friends, and in romance. The results suggest that people who feel powerful in any context tend to be more content, especially in the workplace. Being in a position of power causes people to feel more true to themselves, where their actions more closely reflect their beliefs and desires. In turn, these feelings of authenticity enhance feelings of well-being and happiness (Kifer et al., 2013). So…does money really buy happiness? The answer is yes, to the degree that it buys power.
The illusion of control
On the other hand, power can go to one’s head, causing people to think they have more control over things than they actually do. Leaders often underestimate the time, money, and human lives involved in conquest. CEOs routinely overestimate their capacity to turn mergers and acquisitions into profits. One study showed that unrealistic optimism and inflated self-esteem can come easily, just from being able to control a ‘chance’ result. Simply experiencing power led to a gross overestimation of abilities. This has implications for how power is maintained or lost. Illusions of power can help make even the impossible possible, but might also contribute to loss of power from poor choices. According to the authors, “the illusion of personal control might be one of the ways in which power often leads to its own demise.” (Fast et al., 2009). This story has been told ad nauseum in Greek tragedy, and by all the great playwrights.
The Will to Power (der Wille zur Macht)
This is the essential philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who considered power the main driving force in humans. Wherever there is life there is will to power. Even the strongest will risk their lives for more power, suggesting that it is stronger than even the survival instinct. The will to power explains life-denying (ascetic) and life-affirming impulses, as well as master and slave morality. It is richer than the desire for happiness, or the desire to be good. Nietzsche describes the expansion of power as fundamental to all life. Life is naturally insatiable, and seeks any niche or mode to thrive. Nietzsche’s concept is essentially anti-Darwinian, or more so a form of social Darwinism. In psychological terms, the will to power is the struggle against one’s surroundings that culminates in personal growth, self-overcoming, and self-perfection. When it encounters similar efforts from others, it works out arrangements to conspire and collaborate for even greater power. Power can also mean political or aristocratic domination. Nietzsche even connected the desire for cruelty with the pleasure of power. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he called on humans to rise up and develop their greatness, and not be beaten down by resentment, hatred, fear, and the small-mindedness of others. This is the prophecy of the “Übermensch” or “Superman” that stirred up so much controversy, after being adopted by the Nazis and denatured by Goebbels. But Nietzsche would have been appalled by the “all too human” Nazi regime, and he despised German nationalism in his time. He also hated religion. Nietzsche saw God and the church as evil forces that bind us and strip our power. We should rather strive for human greatness and defy those who would tie us down. This is being true to our real nature. There are similarities in Nietzsche’s work to Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance and the joy of self-discovery, but with a much rougher and darker edge.
Why the powerless rise up
Lack of power does not always lead to weakness. History reminds us repeatedly of the powerless rising up and taking action. Researchers at Northwestern University sought to determine what prompts the powerless to revolt. Power acquired or wielded legitimately is usually accepted by the masses, and leads to a successful cooperative environment. However, fixed elections or unauthorized actions can motivate the powerless. On the other hand, those with legitimate power are more likely to take action. But when conceived illegitimately, the powerful no longer take more action than the powerless. These effects were robust, and show that how power is acquired and wielded determines its consequences. It also reminds us that there is strength (power) in numbers (Galinsky et al., 2008).
Bowing to power
Most often, people do play by the rules. There is fairness in the power game that bestows advantages to those who have earned them. People have an instinct for fairness, and are willing to be led by those greater than themselves, or by the righteous. Indeed, most people seem happy to relinquish their claim to leadership, and the heavy responsibility that goes along with it. However, they usually don’t let just any jerk represent them. (Curiously, when we think of a bad leader, half of us think of Obama and the other half think Bush. Go figure.) In reality there are all kinds of folks who attain power, for one reason or another. Some are stronger, prettier, richer, brighter, taller, better groomed, more cunning, or more determined. It takes all kinds. Nevertheless, attaining and wielding power is challenging, even for the most talented, beautiful and voracious. It’s an uphill battle to disrupt the status quo, or gain access to inner circles. Most of us never do. The system is rigged to keep us down, and arguably for the better. Just think of all the riff-raff and disorder if anyone could take over the reigns. Most of us are resigned to small bits of influence in our little worlds. Though everyone experiences at least 15 minutes of fame in their lifetime, even if it’s in their own mind…or on Facebook.
Fast NJ, Gruenfeld DH, Sivanathan N, Galinsky AD. Illusory Control: A Generative Force Behind Power’s Far-Reaching Effect s. Psychological Science, 2009;20:502-8.
Galinsky A, et al. When the Powerless Rise Up. Psychological Science 2008;19:558–64. http://www.sciencedaily.co m/releases/2008/06/080616124931.htm
Guinote A, Weick M, Cai A. Does Power Magnify the Expression of Dispositions? Psychological Science, 2012;23:475-82.
Kifer Y, Heller D, Perunovic WQE, Galinsky AD. The Good Life of the Powerful: The Experience of Power and Authenticity Enhances Subjective Well-Being. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612450891
van Kleef GA, Oveis C, van der Lowe H, et al. Power, distress and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science 2008;19:1315-22. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081217124154.htm