The Power That Liberates vs The Power That Corrupts

Two articles in the recent Scientific American Mind (May/June, 2017), when read together, provide an extremely relevant, even fascinating insight into the situation in the world today. One is on the psychological effects of power on the powerful. The other is on self-compassion.

 

The first article was called Power Moves: Success Changes How People Think and Act—Often, But Not Always, For the Worse, by Theodor Schaarschmidt. The British politician and historian, Lord John Acton, has often been quoted as saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.” He was mostly speaking of Popes, Roman Emperors, and absolute monarchs.

 

But are the corrupting influences of power real? And if so, are they attributable to the mere fact of having power? Or is it that ruthless people are the ones most likely to search for power to begin with? The article discusses psychologist Susan Fiske’s research—as people gain influence, they change. They act more freely, with less empathy, and a reduced concern for details.

 

The research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, quoted by Schaarschmidt, adds depth to this picture. When we feel powerless, our actions are more inhibited; we are more sensitive to punishment and also the needs of others. As our influence and power increase, we become more sensitive to rewards and less inhibited. The skills needed to obtain power and to lead effectively are the ones most likely to deteriorate once we have power. The powerful tend to overestimate their skills, take greater risks, think in terms of stereotypes, and ignore outside viewpoints.

 

Further studies show the more power people get, the fewer social norms they tend to follow. They can become “Machiavellian;” they disregard moral or even legal limits and feel free to use others in their pursuit of status and advantage. According to psychologist Kibeom Lee, when Machiavellian traits combine with narcissism and psychopathy, people show less honesty and humility.

 

At first glance, it might seem from this research that empathy is somehow opposed to agency or the ability to act and assume power. Not so. In his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Keltner says it is social intelligence, the power to understand, value and advance the goals of others, that yields true power and it is involved in every relationship and interaction. Without this social intelligence we “tend to act like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes” (parts of the brain critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior). The paradox is that we tend to “rise in power in the world due to what is best about human nature but we fall from power due to what’s worst.”

 

According to Schaarschmidt, the corrupting influence of power is slightly less likely with women, for example, whose path to power is often different than with men. As you might expect from the ubiquitous sexism in our society, women are more likely to be attacked for anything that might appear as dominating a group or asserting power, and rewarded with influence by looking out for others.

 

Self-compassion, according to the article The Self-Compassion Solution: Building On A Buddhist Principle, Psychologists Are Learning How Being Kind to Yourself Can Bolster Resilience, Buffer Against Stress and Improve Relationships, by Marina Krakovsky, means “treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would a friend.” In his research, psychologist Kristen Neff discerned three elements of self-compassion: kindness toward yourself, “paying attention to your suffering in a mindful, nonobsessive way,” and a cognitive component, where you understand that suffering is a normal part of life. Neff found that people who score high in self-compassion are less prone to anxiety and depression.

 

Krakovsky mentions the work by psychologist Juliana Breines, who found that self-compassion also helped people not get caught up in feeling their self-worth is dependent on approval by others. But Breines wondered if this diminished worry about the opinion of others would lead to a loss in motivation, as in schools. She found the opposite to be true. Students with self-compassion tended, for example, to study even more for a quiz than others.

 

And in a study with seniors, researchers led by psychologist Batts Allen found that people with self-compassion had a stronger sense of well-being. They were more mindful of what they were doing and feeling, and thus more capable of acknowledging and accepting what was true. Self-compassion apparently led to a better sense of, and valuing of, who they were.

 

Compassion in general is a readiness to act to reduce suffering. Compassion practices strengthen the insula, which is an area in the cerebral cortex of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, involved in emotional regulation, stimulating energy and focus. Compassion for self and others not only energizes us to act to relieve suffering; it energizes us to act with more awareness. It increases our ability to learn and discern what is going on. Especially when combined with mindfulness, it can help people think more clearly and critically.

 

We have this maladaptive, basically Machiavellian, idea in the U. S. that only by being selfish and ruthless can we achieve any political change; that ruthless behavior can somehow result in a “better” or more equitable world. The research on power shows the opposite to be true. And one of many reasons this idea is maladaptive is because it can undermine the motivation by ethical and empathic people to want to take political action. We have an example now of a leader whose craving for power, rewards, and status has clouded his empathy and understanding and caused political chaos, an increase in racist incidents, an undermining of democratic values, etc., etc.

 

If we want leaders who can think clearly and act with understanding, we need to learn more about the power of compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves. We need leaders trained in compassion so they can resist the distorting influence of power and more clearly empathize with and prioritize the needs of the great majority they represent, not just the rich few. The power that corrupts is power over others. The power that liberates is power over oneself. A wonderful, short novel based on the life of the Buddha, by Satish Kumar, called The Buddha and the Terrorist, makes clear the differences between these two types of power. The first is power based on opposition and so creates perpetual conflict and distrust. The second is based on understanding self and others, the power to learn and change, and thus creates trust and cooperation. And one way we can begin to advance the power that liberates is by teaching compassionate critical thinking in schools.

 

A Compassionate Curriculum Part A: Teaching Our Nature

Mindfulness and compassion practices are wonderful, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school and the curriculum. So, how do you do that? What needs to be included in a curriculum so students are more likely to graduate as compassionate human beings?

 

A curriculum that teaches compassion should start with “big questions,” especially those chosen or verbalized by students. In that way, students will feel heard and thus more inclined to listen. They will then look at the school as part of themselves, not as something totally separate. As discussed in an earlier blog, creating a curriculum out of big questions gives students not only an understanding of issues they consider important but the sense that they can figure out for themselves how their actions can serve a useful purpose.

 

Next, the curriculum needs to directly face a question that students in several of my classes often raised: what are we humans? What is it in our nature to be? We say things like, “it is just human nature to do x, y, or z.” What could that mean? Students often assume that humans have a “nature” and having a “nature” means that you can’t help but enact that nature. Your nature is fixed, in your DNA. But what exactly is fixed? And what would having such a fixed nature imply? Since there is so much violence and suffering in the world, how can it be our nature to be compassionate? This question is a mirror of another old philosophical question: If God is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

 

One book that could be a resource for a secondary school curriculum on compassion is The Compassionate Instinct. This book explores scientific evidence and philosophical arguments for compassion. In the first essay, Dacher Keltner makes the point that “human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature.” When you assume something about your nature, you act in accord with that assumption. To talk about human nature is to talk about who you are as a person, who you are as a friend or loved one, parent or child. It is not simply an intellectual question. It affects the whole way you relate to others and live your life. Students need to look for the larger dimensions and implications of their questions, and teachers need to understand the implications of the material they teach and their pedagogy.

 

Keltner argues that compassion is “rooted in our brain and biology, and [is] ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” It is in us, as a possibility. It can be developed—or subverted. Our brains are plastic in that they are continuously rewiring to some degree. We change according to our experience and education. Learning means change. Even the expression of DNA depends on experience. Maybe how we think about our nature is both a result of our nature and at the same time helps form that nature.

 

How do you relate to suffering, or to the awful, the holocausts, genocides, wars, and death? When students, and teachers, read about something awful like violence, murders and even the devious manipulations of political leaders now or in the past, they might say, “Ah, yes. Just what I expected.” Others, “I don’t want to hear about it.” It is difficult to allow yourself to be in the middle between assuming the worst of people and wanting to hide.

 

In history, it is easy to overemphasize the horrors that humans have perpetrated and to leave out the good. To talk about Hitler and forget Asoka. The good is often seen as inconsequential, banal or everyday; yet without this everyday counterweight to what we consider evil, we could not go on. This is not “inconsequential” but the most consequential. For example, students in one of my classes claimed that humans are not cooperative. I then asked them, how did you get to school this morning? Why didn’t all the cars on the road crash into each other? I continued: Name all the different people you can think of who contributed to making your lunch. In our school, this was a very visible subject as one group of students helps cook the lunch for the school and another grows some of the food. Students went on and on, surprising themselves with the result, naming teachers who instructed students on how to cook the food, farmers and truckers and people who made the forks and spoons. After just a few minutes, it seemed that everyone and everything contributed to their lunch. Instead of disconnection, students learned about interdependence, which in turn opened the door to the possibility of compassion.

 

Teachers might claim they value compassion and have empathy for their students and others. Yet, if they teach that selflessness is a myth, that we are born to put competitiveness and greed before other ways of being, they undermine that claim. For example, take science or social studies teachers who discuss evolution and have students read portions of Darwin’s  The Origin of Species but not The Descent of Man. Psychologist and evolution theorist David Loye points out that Origin spells out the theory most people associate with Darwin, that through random variations in genes and “natural selection” the best organisms are picked out to survive while the rest are discarded. Such a choice has led to theories about humans being naturally aggressive, that competition is necessary for survival, even that there is such a thing as a “selfish gene.” In Descent, Darwin applies his theories to human beings and, I think, leaves us with a very different message than he did in Origin. He speaks more about “mutual aid,” ethics or morality, and love than about “the survival of the fittest.” He speaks about helping others, even the weak, out of “sympathy.” So, should we teach both books? And which book gives us more incentive to act in an ethical or a compassionate manner?

 

We need to let the light in. Especially when the subject is difficult, we need to hold the reality, even the difficult and painful reality, in our arms for a second; to listen to what has to be said without jumping to a conclusion or running to hide.

 

There are specific characteristics of being human, for example, our shape, the fact that we normally have two legs, two arms, and two eyes. Our brain and senses obviously allow us to do some things but not others. We can walk on our own two feet but not fly with (just) our feet. Most of us can perceive a variety of colors but none of us can perceive ultraviolet light. If we could see ultraviolet, just think how our experience might change. But is our nature something different from a description of what our mental and physical equipment makes possible? Or should I ask: Does our physical and mental equipment make it possible for us to have meaningful choices in how we act? Is the most important thing about our nature the possibility that we have a choice about how we use our equipment? That we can choose to be either compassionate or hurtful?

 

The question of what does it mean to be a human being is a crucial question for students to raise in our classes and for teachers to address directly. Hidden in the question is the recognition that who we are is about who we choose to be. Who do you choose to be? What would you choose to teach?