Dacher Keltner

In psychological science, power is defined as one’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources—such as food, money, knowledge, and affection—or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism. This definition de-emphasizes how a person actually acts, and instead stresses the individual’s capacity to affect others. Perhaps most importantly, this definition applies across relationships, contexts, and cultures. It helps us understand how children can wield power over their parents from the time they’re born, or how someone—say, a religious leader—can be powerful in one context (on the pulpit during a Sunday sermon) but not another (on a mind numbingly slow line at the DMV come Monday morning). By this definition, one can be powerful without needing to try to control, coerce, or dominate. Indeed, when people resort to trying to control others, it’s often a sign that their power is slipping.

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