Welcome to the Farnam Street podcast called The Knowledge Project, I'm your host as Shane Parrish, the curator behind the blog Farnam Street, which is an online community focused on mastering the best of what other people have already figured out.
The knowledge project is where we talk with interesting people to uncover frameworks you can use to learn more in less time, make better decisions and live a happier, more meaningful life. On this episode, I have Dacher Keltner. He's been a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, attending full professorship since 2002 to his writing spans the world of emotion and power. He's the author of several books, including Born to Be Good and Understanding Emotions. His latest book, The Power Paradox, explores our limited understanding of power and influence, including how we gain and lose power.
I'm pleased to have Dacher Keltner on the show.
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Welcome. It's good to be with you. I want to talk in broad themes about some of the things that you've been studying and writing about. So much of your work surrounds the role of emotion in human life, especially positive emotions and compassion and love. Give me a primer on emotion.
Yeah. You know, so my interest in emotion and really I think that the primer for the scientific study of emotion begins with Charles Darwin and then also one of the great founders of American psychology, who is William James and Darwin focused on expression in eighteen seventy one and James on the body. But what they were arguing for, if you read them carefully, is that our emotions and how we express them in our facial expressions and our voice and and what happens in our body are really about building the strong relationships that define the human species, the attachments we feel to offspring, the patterns of love we feel for partners, that the feelings of on reverence and gratitude we feel towards friends and social groups.
So out of that thinking came and more recent science that have been part of it really says that emotions are the grammar or language of social living.
What are the differences between the man and the woman in terms of a physical connection? A woman has a baby growing inside her for nine months. The man doesn't. How does that affect our emotional connectivity? Yeah, I think, you know, the we are seeing increasingly we're an unusual primate in that, you know, like chimpanzees, males don't even know who really know who their offspring are given their reproductive patterns and I write about this in would be good.
The the female goes into estrous mates with every male around and and then their sperm competition and a baby comes out and the male doesn't know. So they aren't really engaged in too much parenting. And in humans for a lot of interesting reasons, fathers are in the game and they know who their offspring are and they provide care. But but I do think, Jane, you are pointing to something that we often overlook scientists, but which is fundamental is the physical connection between mother and child.
You know, just the the having a child in the womb and then through breastfeeding, which the human average across history is four years of skin to skin contact and the provision of nourishment and the oxytocin is released and the prolactin that is this oceanic feeling of connection that's foundational. So I you know, you we shy away from those raw facts at times of our evolution and these interesting sex differences.
But they are there and I think have interesting things to say about why women are more collaborative and live longer and and handle stress in different ways. I think a lot begins with just that basic source of caregiving they provide.
The connection between happiness and emotion seems strong in your writing. You talk about Jen, which is a concept I haven't heard of before. Can you explain that?
Yeah. You know, the connection, happiness, our sense that life is going pretty well is strongly driven by three things in the vast scientific literature now. And one is the positive emotions we've been talking about, like mirth and laughter and love and sympathy. Another is how you handle stress and negative emotion, and the third is social connection. And you know, Shane, when I was when I've been teaching human happiness at Berkeley and then online at ADEX for a long time, and there there's just this amazing array of findings from labs all over the world showing that like Elizabeth done, when I when I share money with another person, I get happier than if I spend it on myself.
Investigators at the University of Oregon, led by Harben colleagues, showing that if I give money to charity, it activates the reward circuits of the brain, much as if I receive that gift. Other studies showing that when I'm beat, when I'm volunteering, which activates the vagus nerve and oxytocin, presumably in certain regions of the brain, I live longer and and I'm happier.
And so I was trying to use the English language for interesting historical reasons, doesn't have a great set of words that describe that phenomenon of like serving others to that in an ironic way that build up the social fabric we like scientists use the word prosocial and and it's kind of absurd. And then know I've been a fan of Eastern Thought for since I was seventeen or eighteen and in in Confucianism in the Analects of Confucius, which is twenty five hundred years old.
The central idea, and I remember this from when I was 19, is called Gen Orangun, and it's about bringing out the good in others. Right. And so to quote Confucius, a person of humanity or gen brings the good and others to completion and does not bring the bad and others to completion. So at its core, it has this mixture of love and compassion and reverence for other people. And that seemed to be to, in my readings, one of the best ways to capture these emotions and tendencies, like volunteering and feeling compassion and, you know, soothing somebody and listening carefully that really contribute to happiness.
So I came up with this idea of, you know, we should really try to define our day according to hygiene actions, you know, sharing laughter with a friend, giving some resources away, empowering other people as a path to the good life.
Why do you feel like the key to happiness? Like what's the connection?
Well, you know, it's interesting. I think that one connection is, is it we've long known that it that, you know, that we have these same. Things in our cultures and their sayings like this and almost all the great contemplative spiritual ethical traditions that to give is is is meaningful as to receive you find yourself and serving others. And indeed, a lot of studies are showing bringing out the good in others, giving to others, promoting others just gives you this burst of happiness.
And we're saying it's really incredible.
There's a region of the brain that you might loosely call the reward circuitry, and it involves a couple of regions that produce dopamine, like the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens down in the middle of your brain. They project to your prefrontal cortex and the frontal part of your cortex and and that's your reward circuit associated with eating good food and getting a massage and so forth.
And what new studies are finding is that that circuit is activated when you feel a love, when you feel compassion and help somebody out, when you give resources to another person, when you cooperate with another person, it all activates this reward circuit. And what that tells us is the brain has been wired to make it feel good, to do good. And we don't know why in the deep evolutionary sense, but that tells us it gives us a neuro anatomical explanation of that feeling.
People report all the time like God was serving food to some homeless. And we have too many people who are homeless in the United States. And I just felt so good. Right. And now we have an explanation of why hygiene behaviors make us feel happy.
I like that a lot. It seems like our definition of good can change, though. And how does that affect the brain's wiring? I mean, what what's good today or what we consider culturally good? Yeah. Like not every culture would would have the same sort of.
Yeah. Well that's that's where that's where culture is so dynamic and it is so and that's why conversations like this one and the work that you're doing and, and why we write books, which is we can test and try to define the good in ways that are ideally in my philosophical perspective, good for society in the world and the sustainability of our species.
And one of the things that the happiness literature has brought into focus is that in the past 30 years, 40 years in the US and and we're seeing this in Canada. So Canada actually but increasingly in some of the fast you know, the quickly industrializing societies is we've moved away from and other orientation. Right. To share resources or I'll cooperate with you or I'll trust you.
We've moved towards a more self focused, materialistic, ego focused, greed based, focused set of values where people really boldly, with great fanfare define the good as self-expression is maximizing your self interest.
One of my favorite champions of this is Ian Rand, who probably is the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, everybody's Atlas Shrugged and so forth. And I'm going to quote her from nineteen sixty four. Or she said, For any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.
And I think I think as we grapple with carbon emissions and how hard it is to get people to stop consuming, we are grappling with the outgrowth of that definition of what is good, of maximizing your own pleasure. So it is a critical thing, Jane, to really contest and converse about what we define as good a kind of a like the notion of maximizing your pleasure.
I think of it in terms of maximizing the first order benefits instead of maximizing your pleasure, because there's a huge second order negatives to all of this stuff. And so I see it as this inability to almost delay gratification.
Yeah, some cultures I mean, they display very little kind of outward emotion and some explode with joy and sadness and laughter. I mean, from a methodological point, the standpoint like how do you approach the problem of determining what part of our genetic wiring, what's given to us by culture?
Yeah, you know, it's it's amazingly complex. And so I'll tell you about a recent study we're just about to publish.
This is what Dan Cordeiro, you know, you you go to other cultures and you you are struck. I think people anecdotally are struck by two things, and one is, wow, you know, I was traveling in remote Nepal or in down in a remote part of Ecuador, and I saw some kids playing and laughing.
And they it just looked like what I do with my what I did with my brother, I saw people flirting. And there just seems to be this similarity.
And at the same time, you come away thinking that there's all this amazing difference, you know, that in terms of the intensity of the expression. And so we know that, for example, East Asian cultures say Japan tend to have more muted emotional facial expressions than somebody from the United States. And so how we approach that, and I think you have to really approach it with really precise, sophisticated measurement and you have to move beyond language, because when I say that person was smiling, that that is ambiguous.
And if I say this, the person from Norway never expresses emotion. That is that is that observation comes in coming through language, potentially a certain biases in it. Right. Stereotypes and so forth. And and so what's emerging in the scientific literature is this idea that we do have this common language of expressing emotion in the tone of voice, in facial muscle movements and body movements, gaze activity, just the stuff that evolution equipped us with.
And then cultures have ways of picking this rich out of this rich language of emotion, creating their own emotion dialects, right where we might express anger with like a dramatically raised set of upper eyelids. Right.
And so my student, Dan Cordeiro, did this amazing study that's just been published where he traveled to five countries and he had people express 20 to emotions, you know, from or to compassion to anger to discuss to contentment some of the positive emotions we've been talking about.
And then he took about six months coding every visible movement these people recruited to express emotion.
It literally almost left him blind. And and and what he found, which is interesting, is that across these five different cultures, China, India, Japan, Korea, the US, really different cultural systems, about 50 percent of any expression that an individual would admit is this universal expression where if you get embarrassed, you turn your head away and you show your neck and you smile in an awkward way and you avert your gaze. And then about twenty five percent of what you express is really this culturally specific dialect where you might add a little hide a face cover of your mouth if you're laughing in Japan or, you know, when you express pride in the US, you expand your chest in a normal primate type way.
So I think that's a pretty reasonable way to think about a lot of who we are is is is due to our mammalian evolution and is universal. But then culture comes in and has this unique language.
It's a very significant part of how we express ourselves so similar enough where we can we understand another culture despite some of the nuances, but it's not similar enough that it looks the exact same.
Yeah, and I think that when you think about experiences with people from other cultures where you don't share a language, this estimate of 50 per cent being universal and twenty five percent being really different seems seems pretty sensible, which is like you get a sense like, oh, we're all this situation is kind of funny right now. People are sharing laughter. Right. But maybe there's a little bit of irony or self deprecation that you can't pick up that is expressed in a particular dialect.
So I do think that it is this sense that part of us is is is shared and then culture adds its its nuances in order to be good.
You have an interesting plan, Darwan. Instead of saying survival of the fittest, you say survival of the kindest. How do you differentiate between the sort of kindness we displayed to those in our groups in the more general sort of kindness we hope to display to strangers we might have nothing in common with?
Well, this is one of the this is a fundamental question in evolution and also in ethics and morality. And you're really right to zero in on this. And, you know, and thanks for bringing this up. So first of all, when I wrote Born to Be Good and I was doing all this work on compassion and the vagus nerve and oxytocin in parts of the brain. They're involved in compassion and really sacrifice and altruism.
I read Darwin thanks to the recommendations of a Darwin scholar, Frank Sulloway, at Berkeley, and he said, you know, you should if you're writing about emotion for born to be good, you should really go back to all of Darwin's writings and dig deep. And we have this notion of Darwin as being founded on survival of the fittest. And it's the strong and the nasty and the manipulative and the Machiavellian who thrive in evolution and Darwin to believe that at all.
And in fact, he anticipated a shift in evolutionary thought today in when he said that it really is the communities that have the most sympathetic members who will flourish and raise the greatest number of offspring. And that idea has really come to life in recent evolutionary thought we've been talking about, which is we have very vulnerable offspring. They're the carriers of our genes. If they don't survive, we don't survive as a species.
And so we've evolved all these emotions and and communication systems like tactile contact to connect and attach and raise offspring. And we need collaborative networks to do that, which is a new line of thinking and evolutionary thought about what's called allo parenting, where we take care of young offspring that aren't ours.
And so Darwin had a much different view of our sense of evolution. And, you know, the that really, really sort of shaped how we really need to rethink kind of the origins of human emotion as being this fount of of sentiments like appreciation and compassion and love in a in an increasingly just to go back to something we said earlier, in an increasingly self-centered world, do you think you can be too kind?
Yeah. Yeah, there's no doubt. I mean, I think that it's you know, one of the things that I teach in human emotion is and it's interesting is Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, had this principle of moderation, which is we need all the passions in the right place and to the right degree and in the right context. And anger can get you into trouble if you're a young boy and you you are constantly expressing your anger data show, studies show you're going to have trouble, you're going to get suspended and so forth.
And Aristotle's idea is really mapping on to kind of a new line of work on. We need all the emotions to moderate degrees and to the context in the right way. And ironically, some of the positive emotions like compassion or joy, if you have too much of them, you will pay a price. So we've done work in my lab on people who show a lot of hyperconnectivity and compassion to others.
And they tend to fit a profile of being vulnerable to mania, right where you walk around in your daily life and you feel connected to the homeless person and you give away a lot of money, and then you you go to work and there's a woman who's feeling sad and you feel too connected to her and you become merged in an inappropriate relationship. And then you you go out back to your family and your wild eyed with a sense of positive emotion and connection and your kids feel a little distant to it.
So I think it's a really telling lesson that even too much compassion, which is one of the most social ethical emotions, it can produce, the social class, these secondary problems that you've talked about when pushed to the extreme.
Do you think that applies to groups as well? Can groups or cultures be too, too focused on or not focused? That's the wrong word, but too prone to one without a balance or harmony with the other's. Can culture be too compassionate? Yeah, wow. Yeah, you know, probably, you know, and we just, you know, and it's back to a question, Jane, that you asked and I and I got distracted and didn't answer it because I got carried away thinking about Darwin.
So I apologize.
You know, it's the question of like, how much compassion should you feel and should you feel compassion towards other groups?
And Darwin laid down this idea of, wow, we've evolved to be sympathetic and the science is showing we're sympathetic towards young offspring and family members and also friends, people who are part of our social groups. And that raises the question of and can we push sympathy to extend to other people who are not part of our groups? And this is one of the challenges that is laid down by a lot of the great ethical traditions. Right. Peter Singer, the great ethicist, said we have this thing called the circle of care.
And really the growth of human history is about expanding our circle of care. We not only care about our kind in our family and our village, but we care about people in other villages and others species and all sentient beings in the Buddhist phraseology. And that I do think that that is the that is where we encounter the limits of evolutionary biology and we have to get to cultural practices like extending compassion to people who are not like us. That raises the question of if you practice this optimal compassion or maximal compassion like the Dalai Lama does, are you vulnerable?
And as a culture and, you know, I think you could think of instances in which that's the case where, you know, if a small hunter gatherer tribe was purely compassionate, they could be invaded and taken over by another tribe. And so I think that raises interesting questions about the limits of compassion.
I want to come back to Darwin for a second because you discuss him a lot. You discuss the descent man quite a bit and born to be good. It seems like that book has its relatively unknown, like it's fallen out of favor over time or it seems like it's fallen out of favor. What do you think that is?
Well, you know, the, the, it fell out of favor. You know, the descent of Man Darwin wrote it was his first book about humans and the Origin of Species is about other species.
And he has nothing to say about human beings. And then he started to face a bunch of critiques. And it's important to remember, you know, at the time the Darwin published his theory of evolution, 50 percent of scientists were creationists. They really felt that God had designed nature and laid it down and unfixed fat and sort of a fashion.
And so Darwin encountered these critiques in the public conversation and he had to write about humans and he did. So he made his case for evolution in humans by charting the emotions. And he wrote the expression of emotion in man and animals in eighteen seventy two. And he also wrote The Descent of Man, which originally was going to be part of one book with the expression book, but he broke it into two.
And Darwin's you know, the reason that it fell out of favor is one is and this is a subject of debate in Darwinian circles. Is was he a bit was there a little bit of racism in the book when he talked about other cultures? And like many in that Victorian period, which is a pretty racist period, he did.
There are some shades of thinking in a special essentialist terms about racial categories, which we know is misguided today, but it's modest compared to the racism of other scientists. And I think that the second thing that Darwin I mean, he offers this theory of sexual selection in the descent of man, which is all about how a lot of human characteristics like our tendency to want social status and our tendency to beautify ourselves and our tendency to, you know, for men and women to take the particular physical shapes that they have, are shaped by sexual selection, are attempt to attract mates and to reproduce.
And for interesting reasons, scientists felt embarrassed to study sex. He that wasn't picked up for a long time, an evolutionary thought.
And then I think that this other line of thinking, that's a very small part of the descent of man, but a richer part of the expression of emotion in man and animals is Darwin was clearly making the case that a lot of.
Our moral tendencies we share with other primates, we share with other mammals like dogs, we we are they are have biological foundations. And that was not a popular line of thought for a long time to think that human morality and human goodness is shared with other species and it's crafted by evolution.
There's a lot of interesting things in that answer. One of them that I picked up on. Yeah. That I kind of want to explore just a little bit is why do you think that we tend to write people or things off based on something that has nothing to do with the wisdom we're acquiring from it or the knowledge contained in it? Can you elaborate on that? Well, you mentioned that, you know, there was a bit possibly of racism or what we might think of today as racism.
Yeah, and if that has a notion, I'm trying to explore the tension between that sort of impact on a book and then our our desire or lack of desire to then pick it up and learn something from it. It's almost like we write it off mentally. And this has nothing good to say because we insert some sort of blanket statement and then we miss out on so much because we're not willing to explore ideas of people and separate them or distinguish them possibly from the person.
And I'm only mentioning this in the context of Darwin, but I think it exists in the context of almost everything.
Yeah, no, I agree. You know, we and it's a really complicated issue with scholarship, which is people will write books in historical political contexts that are then used by other people. Right. People in politics or and that may have little to do with the intention of the scholarship. And then and then in hindsight, future scholars may write off the contributions of that person. So, you know, one of the most famous examples is Martin Heidegger, a philosopher, was ended up kind of being popular amongst Nazis.
And so people are very skeptical about a scholarship.
You know, the the thing with Darwin, because he is arguably the most important scientist or thinker ever, I think. And this is really brought into focus. And it really shaped my receptivity to Darwin by a spectacular book on social Darwinism, by I think it's a philosopher named Kegler from Stanford. You know, ironically, Darwin was in many ways a very 21st century person. He was a devoted father, very involved in his family life, really close to his kids, good community men were really co-operative, rated by historians as one of the kindest historians.
It's interesting to me that Darwin, unlike a lot of Victorian scientists, didn't care about social class. Right. And he learned a lot about evolution from talking to working class, poor ostracise pigeon breeders. And he learned about how they created new breeds of pigeon through processes of natural selection. So he in many ways, he was a deep egalitarian in how he treated his wife and contributed to child care and and the like. But what happened is how the social Darwinists after Darwin used his thinking and what they did, as is characterized in this really important book on social Darwinism by danglers, they said, hey, there's this English scientist who says we can explain human beings through evolution.
And they look and then these social Darwinists look around and they say, wow, the most sophisticated society in the world right now is Victorian England. So therefore, we were a different race. We evolved according to different principles and then other cultures. And that turned out to be a fallacy and really a political use of Darwin.
So that often happens.
And you're right, Jane. I mean, this is the challenge, right, of of the legacy of scholarship is if it occurs in a political context with problems we perceive today, what do you do with that scholarship? And and I think that in spite of these critiques of Darwin, that he use certain phrases that felt a little freighted with racist language. He stood the test of time for one, because his family had a long history of abolitionism, which is important to remember for two, because of the quality of science.
And then I think that science tells us, as we've learned and been talking about today, that the noblest of human tendencies. Right, our love of art, our sense of morality, our ability to care for vulnerable things are really common to all human beings, which is what Darwin ultimately was arguing. Right.
I worry that if we can't separate people from ideas, that we inadvertently get into almost a moral selection bias. Yeah, yeah.
Who are you worried about in particular? Is there.
Oh, no one in general is just kind of a theme that I see people that see plays out right. You mentioned somebody maybe that's contentious and then maybe you're hitting on an idea of that person. But we already write them off as having nothing of value to contribute, has nothing to do with the idea that you're talking about. Has to do with the person.
Yeah. You know, and it's funny to me that artists, in a way can get away with it.
It's a Caravaggio, one of the great. Painters killed somebody, I think Norman Mailer stabbed somebody I as part of what makes them famous.
But the scientists have a slight implication that whatever it is, they yeah, they get they get into trouble. So I think it's a I'm glad you're raising the question. We should always try to separate the person from the science in some sense and the context in which they write.
Since you're a psychologist, I have to ask, what is your take on the reproducibility crisis kind of in the social sciences and some of the non social sciences these days? How do you approach this problem of non replicable research and sort of being careful not to draw conclusions that are false?
Yeah, you know, well, I mean, the first thing to, you know, to remember and when you've been around science guys in grad school twenty five years ago, 30 years ago, is sciences go through crises. Right. And when I was a young grad student, the big crisis was whether, you know, all of the great studies of social psychology, the Milgram obedience to authority studies, the Solomon Asch conformity studies. These are the most famous studies almost in psychology.
Were they true or were people just pretending? And that was a crisis. And we debated it. And then we used our reason to assess the validity of the findings. And they've stood the test of time today, the reproduction crisis. I have a couple of reactions to it. One is that, you know, a lot of our journals very painstakingly require replication. So, you know, you do a study several times with slight variations to really have a sense of the reliability of the finding.
A lot of our statistical techniques now recognize the need to replicate when we do what we call meta analysis, where we look at what is, in effect, size or how strong is a statistical relationship across labs and studies. So I think we do care about replication. I will know. It's interesting to me that the replication crisis has targeted certain kinds of studies.
So we're not attempting to replicate really intensive physiological studies which could take years to do or they've tended to really target studies that you do online that are quick and kind of catchy, that are easily reproducible, don't cost a lot of money to verify.
Yeah, and that makes me worried. So when I looked at some of the tables of like, here's what's being attempted to be replicated, it's a very narrow swath of seven. Looks like no one's attempting to replicate a long term study of marriage. Right. Or because it's just takes a long time. So so I think I think that it's been overblown somewhat personally. And secondly, that it reminds us we need to make sure we replicate findings. Third, it will lead to improvements in our methodologies.
And the fourth, and this is really interesting. And and and it hasn't been grappled with, I believe, substantively in the field, which is that I'm in social psychology by definition. We believe that phenomena change as a function of the social context. That's the part of social psychology. If I'm in one situation, I behave differently than in another situation or one context. And and I think that what we should start to make sure we do is systematically think about the historical context of a finding.
Right. So let me give you one example. Know, I did a lot of early work on power that I write about in this book, The Power Paradox in the late 90s. And that was a much different political economic context than today. And we know that factors like, you know, the new social media and Facebook and inequality influence the human mind. So I think we need to start thinking about systematic ways of capturing how context change and might produce the failure to replicate a finding.
I want to come to the power right after I have one more question. Kind of born to be good, which is toward the end of that, you make a somewhat controversial statement, in my opinion. I mean that human groups evolve toward more morality.
I would think this more moral. Yeah. So I think this connects to your idea of survival of the kind is now a kind of world. Push back a little bit and lean on that thesis. If we have such a well-developed sense of positive morality and doing good things feels good to us as you explain in your book and why the end of the. All humans and groups consistently do such heinous things to each other. Perhaps the worst atrocities in history have been committed.
Only a few generations ago, after tens of thousands of years of human evolution.
Yeah, you know, I I sympathize with that critique, Jane, and I think that the science that I report on and born to be good about love and compassion and, you know, laughter and play and joy and gratitude, those are new sciences. And they the older science on anger and fight or flight and aggression and stress had been well worked out.
So I prioritize the good and and should have you know, I think that the more realistic perspective that I take in my scientific inquiry or when I write about human emotion more generally is humans are a very complicated bundle of an array of social strategies that manifest in emotions.
And we have a lot of prosocial tendencies and we have a lot of unnerving anti-social tendencies from, you know, violence and genocide. And evolutionary psychologists have made the case that rape is a evolved strategy and it's a human universal. And regrettably, we see it everywhere. And so that's that's the struggle of human existence and the struggle of society is to in histories. Wow, we have all this complicated, all these complicated tendencies to to be kind and to be harsh and and that.
And then you have to think about what are the the contextual factors that that allow for the expression of the good things and not the bad and and that becomes, you know, different intellectual tasks. So I think you're right. I think it is this interesting balance or mixture or set of competing strategies to the question of what direction are we going in as a culture and is it and in our history, you. Yeah, and I was really when I made that statement that human groups move are moving in this social direction.
You know, I had two sources for that statement. And one was Steve Pinker was starting to write about the decline of violence and that for the past five hundred years, we see less rape and less bullying and less murder. And you're less likely to die on a battlefield and there's less torture. And we treat people with mental illness better and we don't enslave people, which was very commonplace three, four hundred years ago. And I believe that I feel the slowly in the direction of history is towards a little bit more kindness.
And you could contest that. And people have contested Pinker's thesis. And then the other thing that I really, you know, that influenced me is the broader study of, you know, from almost from the the archaeological record and then, you know, the study of human history, which is, you know, when you read people like Christopher Boehm on politics and social organization in hunter gatherer societies, he really sees it as being very democratic and egalitarian. And there's a lot of gender equality.
And I think gender equality is one of the great indicators of how healthy society is. And then we go through a period, you know, as feminists have long been noting, where women did not very well in many traditional religions and social organization of the last as we moved out of Hunter-Gatherer societies to more stable, larger kingdoms.
And I believe the last 50 years, we're seeing a rise of women to power, which tells us that on that almost most significant indicator of how healthy a society is, we're moving slowly again in the right direction. Wonder on the violence.
They are having not read a lot on this if it's the frequency of the violence is going down, but the magnitude of the impact of the people committing violence goes up because of the technology or the weapons is almost asymmetric to where it was hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, we've moved away from you know, when I read about Machiavelli for this power book and I just read about how violent the 15 hundreds were, it's pretty astonishing. Just hand-to-hand combat and torture, physical. It is unbelievable. But now we have these new technologies where an atomic bomb dropped, dropped on Japan, kills one hundred and fifty thousand people here. There are other problems with the thesis. I volunteer in the prisons and in the US we have two and a half million people in prisons.
Many have mental illnesses and are there for minor drugs. And prison can be thought of very sensibly as a form of violence, as a way to the children's lives. And inflicts harm, so so it's worth worth contesting. Let's come back to Machiavelli. So you're let's talk about your more recent work on power. I guess we'll lead off with Machiavelli here. So the cultural notion of power that most of us have in one way or another derives from a kind of Machiavelli 16th century book, The Prince, and that is power is a brute force, kind of strategic ruthlessness and making progress at all costs.
The interesting thing to me is that you argue this is a limited and outdated notion of power. Why?
Well, you know, the and boy, do I seem like a fool when you from a certain vantage point on today's political context, so and so you're going to bring that up?
I don't think it's going to fool, but I definitely think the current climate might guess differs all this into question. Yeah.
Yeah. So here's what's really interesting. The you know, when you when you take a step back and you think about the broad sweep of human evolution, the, you know, the best, most reliable data on Hunter-Gatherer societies, small groups, 75 people, we evolved in these groups for two hundred thousand years was that power was collaborative. It was distributed across people and it kind of horizontal. It was hard to there weren't really vertical hierarchies. Right.
People kind of collaborated in finding food or taking care of offspring, defense, play, courtship, etc. and it was egalitarian. And that's what Christopher Baum writes in kind of the definitive statement of what power is like back then. And it almost gave me goosebumps, Jane. I was there's this book by a couple of archaeologist Marcus and Flannery, and they on the origins of inequality and what they know is 12 to 15 thousand years ago. And I will get to Machiavelli, I promise, 12 to 15 thousand years ago, we moved out of small itinerant nomadic groups into interlocking tribes and settlements of thousands of people.
And then we started to store grains in agriculture.
And when we shifted to this level of organization, hierarchies and power move from collaborative and horizontal to vertical.
And what you see is the emergence of some really interesting things, which is you see systematic violence towards people. You see the emergence of religion that dictates who is powerful and who is not. You see polygamy where men start to have multiple wives and you see slavery emerge, where people really start to feel in these more vertical hierarchies, like I can own these people or these are my indentured servants. Really radical shift. And you fast forward Machiavelli in the Renaissance 16th century writes In a time where vertical hierarchy is at its peak.
Right. Or almost at its peak, which is, you know, monarchies and mercenaries and and indentured servants and really subordinate status of women. And in that particular historical context and it's also worth noting, Europe at that time was profoundly violent and there was torture everywhere and rape everywhere and public executions.
Machiavelli wrote the prince in this cocktail of wild politics just after being tortured. So he writes his book, The Prince. And it's important because he says, look, power is not about morality, it's amoral. And all those ancient Greeks, Aristotle, who thinks power is based in virtue, they're liars. Power is ruthless, and it's just go get it, be coercive, lie to people, trick people, act like you're religious when in fact you're not.
Kill your allies, hold on to power. And that probably was right for his times. But what I try to argue in Born to be good. I mean, the power paradox is the last five hundred years have seen a lot of changes. The rule of law, which has its biases, forms of literacy, new forms of social organization, the rise of women, which the rise of move away from monarchies to governments, constitutions, individual rights, etc.
. And so today, when you go when I teach in organizations, governments and Google etc, biotech. Yeah. You know, you got to be sort of Machiavellian at certain times, but you need a lot of other skills to get things done. And that's the critique of Machiavelli's We've Changed since that historical moment. You got more than you asked for.
No, I was just deconstructing that a little bit.
And I think that sets a really good, like contextual tone for the Machiavellian sort of thinking. Yeah. And why we've evolved that way. In the book, you have a concept called The Power Paradox. Can you explain that and why it's a paradox. Yeah.
Yeah. And just to just to finish up on Machiavelli, you know, the other reason to critique him is the empirical data. There are measures of Machiavellianism. And you if you're a Machiavellian, you lie and manipulate and don't mind really harming people to rise in power. You'll do well in one shot negotiations. But for the most part, you don't do too well. And rising in power, having good friendships in most organizations. Yeah, the power of paradox is the heart of the book.
And and it's this this puzzle that I encountered in my science for twenty five years. And then a lot of labs have replicated and extended and critiqued and modified and sharpened. And the paradox is this.
You know, when you look across studies of how do I get power, right? How do I have influence in this group or this social context, what you in general find is you gain power by what Hannah Arendt and Michele Fuyuko, two of the greatest theories of power talked about, which is by animating a social network. Right. So if I'm at work or I'm on a sports team or I'm a community activist or I'm into TriMet an adolescent on a seventh grade.
Playground, my power is rooted in my ability to stir the actions of other people around me in an effective way, and that's I think that's about as good an assessment of power as you can conceptualize.
And what studies find is, you know, you do that by being bold and by being empathetic, by knowing what other people want, animating them in ways that move them in that direction. And so you get power, you know, and this is I sort of push the thesis by being good to others, by stating things that would be of interest to them, by pointing, by inspiring them, by listening carefully to them, by reaching out to people and building strong social ties.
And that idea you see replicated in military units and schools and organizations. Even a careful look at a lot of non-human primate power politics points to that, that you get power by moving the social network effectively by and it takes these social skills. And then here's where the paradox comes in, which is another part of my lab was studying what happens once you feel powerful, you've done on Earth, animated the social network, and now you feel like, you know, I'm the master of the universe.
And and it's as if your frontal lobes are destroyed and you lose all the social skills that got you power in the first place. And we show when I feel powerful, I read people's emotions less effectively. I interrupt them more and then all hell breaks loose and you swear at people and you're more likely to have sexual affairs. You flirt inappropriately. We did a study that got a lot of attention or people driving really powerful cars are much more likely to drive through pedestrian zones and almost hurt pedestrians.
So and that should remind people what's happening today. So it's this paradox of human life. Like I get power by Jen, by lifting up people. But once I get power and feel it, trouble breaks loose.
I'm wondering if you've ever heard the quote by Robert Caro, who has written a lot of Lyndon Johnson. I think it's for like 40 years now. And before that, he published a famous biography on the most powerful men of the 20th century, which was Robert Moses.
And he said a few times he said the following, which I want to quote here, which is I often hear that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, which is Lord Acton's kind of rule. But what I have found to be invariably true is that power reveals. Would you agree with that sentiment?
Yeah. You know, she man, you are a good reader of things. I really appreciate it. So and and I'll give you a little bit of science on this and the struggle. You know, the science. So I push the argument that power leads to these really selfish, problematic behaviors, and I believe that to be true. So a lot of our work, more recent work with Paul Piff, in particular Michael Krauss to cherish collaborators is about privilege.
And if I come from the one percent, how do I behave? And it and it looks like you are more abusive, right? If you have a lot of wealth. And so our studies show feting this power abuse hypothesis, that if I'm from the well-to-do and or feeling I'm from the upper class, I'm less likely to attend to people carefully when they're speaking.
I am in an experiment. I'm more likely to lie and say I got a really good score on a test to win a prize. Even though I have more money, I don't need the monetary prize. I drive in a problematic way, which I talked about. I'm more likely to take candy in a bowl than the candy is says it's meant for the kids in this institute in which the study took place. So power seems to corrupt in their case.
But I think Karros hypothesis is really more apt, which is that it it's the context of privilege and being from an upper class background that allows you to just gratify your desires. And so when you feel powerful from that background, you're just more selfish. You're more likely to ignore other people, as Marie Antoinette said, and let them eat cake or whatever. So in that sense, Carol's right. It reveals and I push the thesis, the Lord Acton hypothesis that it corrupts because in a lot of contexts it does.
But there are critical experiments that show that Carrow really was was really in the end, I think, offered the more sort of the more representative statement the power reveals. So one of my favorite studies in this is by my Berkeley colleague, Serena Chen. She found people who are really Machiavellian and competitive or really warm and generous, and she gave those people power and. The opportunity to help somebody else or to gratify their own interests and what she found consistent with the corrupt thesis, if I'm really competitive and self-serving and I get power, I'm even more competitive and self-serving and corrupts.
But critically, if I'm kind and Dalai Lama like and I get power, I'm even more sacrifice oriented and other focused. Right. Power reveals. So I'm glad you brought up Kara. I think you're right. And I think it's more about revealing than necessarily corrupting.
One of the underlying themes of the book is that groups give people power. So how is it that groups can't filter out these sort of character traits if they are? Or is it that once you have power, the environment nudges you? And does it nudge you slowly and then all at once? Or is it this this process that you start surrounding yourselves with people who tell you what you want to hear and then gradually you become insulated from the group that in theory gives you power?
Yeah, you know, so I think, you know, I've been teaching organizations for 20 years, thousands of people in different organizations from, as I said, from governments to biotech firms to startups to Google to, you know, really every imaginable kind of group. And and what you just described, Jane, is is what they speak to as being one of the fundamental issues in the health of an organization is how they handle and rein in the potential abuses of power.
And there are unhealthy groups that, you know, where they don't critique people in power and they don't have voice for subordinates to offer alternative ideas or or critiques or speaking truth to power. And there are no forms of accountability or transparency of power holders. And and literally it can become chaos like you see in Enron, where it's just, you know, people get mad with power and they sink organizations because they're not keeping the powerful in check. And then there are other groups where they build that systematically into the structure of the group.
Right. And they have open critique and peer review. And you make sure that structurally the people who are of lower power or lower status have ways of speaking truth to power, be it in peer commentary or having a voice at a collective meeting. And those groups tend to to, as you say, keep these impulsive tendencies in check. And this is this analysis and this is seen in a lot of different social sciences, from political science to even the thinking about what was so healthy about the democracies of hunter gatherers because they made fun of leaders.
They critique them, they gossiped about each other. So they really kept in check these these more sort of problematic tendencies that power can produce. It's really this science casts a really interesting light upon today's politics, which is when someone undermines news as fake news, even though the newspaper tradition, the right kind is is a has a pretty solid way of finding out facts, you are undermining one of the checks on power when you know you are no longer care about your reputation or people don't care about ethical violations and we no longer deem ethical behavior is something we should expect from leaders.
You are another step down the path towards greater abuses of power.
So it's really important to think about the context of power groups put in kind of checks and balances for power.
What do successful people who not only attain power, but seem to use that in a way for the benefit of the group? How do they differ from people? They don't? Do they put in their own checks and balances? What other do they have some sort of mechanism by which they make sure that they don't sway too far? Like, how does that how does that look?
It's interesting when people talk about great leaders and there have been studies, historical studies, for example, that I write about in the power paradox of who are the great presidents who had a lasting legacy. Lincoln had a lasting legacy. Nixon legacy did not have did not really endure for his ethical violations. And when we talk about great leaders, we often think about kind of their attributes, their qualities. And that's a. Common tendency in Western thought to think about characteristics of the individuals being the source of greatness, but we do talk about things like, you know, one of the defining characteristics of Lincoln was empathy is the ability to listen to other people.
Jim Collins in this is probably the most widely read book on leadership. Millions and millions of copies sold has his final level of leadership, which is about service serving the good to great, right?
Yeah. People often talk about the great leaders. Aristotle had a whole theory of great leadership is really being rooted in virtues like courage and humility. So we talk about these attributes and I do think that that's a very important part of the story. But I think your question and observation is really the more important. And I think as leaders, we can commit to these attributes. But your observation is what kind of social context do we create that empower great leaders?
And so one is what John F. Kennedy did after his Bay of Pigs disaster with Cuba. Is he he appointed people in his cabinets. To be devil's advocate, you have to have critics of everything that leaders do. And I just think that that process is essential. Just any kind of proposal that a leader should make should be met with the counterproposal. And then you reasoned through it. I think that great leaders listen to everybody and they build contexts like Lincoln, where he would have a time during his day.
You know, this is an older historical period where citizens would come to the White House and they would talk to him and he would hear them and he he wasn't sheltered. So I think that you have to listen. And then I think that there there's something about transparency, like building context in which things are really transparent that makes for effective power. And when you think about the collapse, the 2008 economic collapse that Michael Lewis wrote about all of our ways of raiding these commodities and economic these products, just there was totally you couldn't no one could understand then there's no way to assess them.
There's no transparency. And then people ran roughshod over ordinary investors. So I think you need to build context where you're challenged, where you listen, and where your methods of leading are open. And when you have that, things will go well.
In your book, you talk about empathy deficits as a means towards not only losing power, but if we map that to voting to be good, we can probably hypothesize that it also leads to decreased happiness. Yeah, which losing power, I would imagine, would obviously cause decreased happiness. But just in general, what is what does it mean to have empathy and what does that look like.
Wow. Such a nuanced question. So, so empathy. You know, we often confuse empathy with compassion or sympathy, sympathy and compassion. Or when you feel you're concerned about someone suffering and you want to lift up their welfare or you just want to enhance the well-being of another person. Empathy is really you know, people talk in the scientific literature about cognitive empathy, which is where I know what you are thinking about and feeling.
And then emotional empathy is I feel what you feel right. I you laugh and I start laughing or you're feeling joyful and tearing up and I feel the same thing. So there's cognitive and emotional empathy. And, you know, the this was really the first one of the first big clues to why power produces so many problematic effects in society. The abuse of power, which is lab, started to show that, you know, if I get power and I'm randomly assigned to have power over other people, I judge their emotions less accurately.
I can read emotions less effectively from photos of facial expressions. One of my favorite lines of work is in the neuroscience realm, the work of Kealey Muscatel, who's now at the University of North Carolina. You know, she is interested in regions of the frontal lobes that are engaged. When we listen to other people talk, you know, and if a friend is talking to you, parts of your frontal lobes are activated so that you start to think about what's that person feeling and what were they intending in that situation and and why might they have acted in that fashion?
And where are they right now? You're just empathizing in many different ways. And Keely found that if I come from a place of power and privilege and I listen to my friend, those regions of the brain aren't activated. Right. So it was stunning to realize how. These empathy deficits are and, you know, you had this really astute observation, Shane, and I really I think it's it's one of the deeper veins of implication in the happiness literature that's really worth thinking about that I touch upon in power paradox, which is, you know, it's one of the puzzles in the happiness literature is that you don't you're not as happy as you might expect when you make a lot of money or you have a really powerful title that that power and success and and wealth don't bring you as much happiness as we tend to think.
And that is well replicated. The relationship between wealth and happiness is pretty modest when it really boils down to it. And I think that it has to do with the empathy deficits that wealth and power produce, which is our lab has shown. If I'm feeling powerful, I don't take as much joy in your joy. I don't take as much inspiration and the things that inspire you. I don't laugh as much. If you laugh, you don't have empathetic joy, which I think is one of the most delicious kinds of happiness that we can experience.
The power tends to undermine.
How did you go about teaching your kids empathy or encouraging them to the extent you could to have empathy?
I failed, but I hope they're not listening to this now.
You know you know their well.
What can parents do to especially in this cultural generation, to encourage their children to have and develop empathy for other people?
So I'm going to say I will tell you, Jane, you know, I know it is so humbling to be a scientist that the good stuff and then you you have kids and you're just it's you're just wiped out and tired and the kids get into trouble. You get into trouble. And so it's it it's humbling. And I I took real solace and found incredible insights in the developmental science of how you teach empathy to kids, because it is hard work and it goes like this and it's really funny, you know.
So there's this work by Judy Dunn and Nancy Eisenberg, who was a big grad now at Arizona State. And what they notice and I think it's this is the first piece you got to really grapple with up front is there's a lot of conflict in American families and an early family life is about emotional struggles. So, Judy, John Donne found, for example, the average siblings, two little beautiful laughing. Two and four year old siblings are fighting with each other six times an hour.
So every 10 minutes, they get into a squabble or they're wrestling or pulling each other's hair worse.
And on top of that, the average parent is getting into a conflict with a child six times an hour. So you got 12 conflicts now in young families and parents will immediately be like, God, that's so true.
And I remember reading that I was not to mention parenting, inherent conflict. Oh, my God, we won't even go. Right. So what Judy Dunn found and she was really interested in documenting, like in these ritt, this rich stew of American emotional life and I would argue the emotional life of a family. There's all this conflict. How do you get kids to empathize? And the first thing she really, really encourages is that parents have to get their kids to they have to ask questions and let the kids reasoned through things so you don't get kids to empathize.
And I failed at this by saying the Dalai Lama thinks that compassion is the ultimate virtue. And you decree that right there. Like who cares how you get them to empathize is by asking questions and then and then being quiet and letting the kids raise. And so, you know, if a conflict is happening, the parent who leads the kids towards empathy is saying things like, you know, why is your little sister crying and what and then why are you crying right now?
Oh, I see. And and then why did she take your toy and why did you burn her doll or whatever it is. Right. And you get kids to reason through. Second thing is it really matters. The developmental science shows to just use emotion, words. You know, we have thousands of emotion, words. They refer to all kinds of interesting states. Are you frustrated or angry or, wow, you're really in rage or you seem sad or is that embarrassing or now you're joyful or you feel compassion for the homeless guy on the street.
So, you know, make your your language of your family full of emotion, words. Is important, and I think it's also this is a real irony in parenting, but I think it's and some parents may push back on this, but I think it's important for parents to let kids experience suffering and to see suffering, try to recognize that there's pain, that this is part of the human condition, because that's really what activates a lot of the prosocial stuff is suffering.
And, you know, they're really cool qualitative studies of families who raise really altruistic adults. And they tend to have a they tend to suffering and remedying suffering is a part of their family conversation. Right. They're trying to figure out mass incarceration or or work against bullying or just embrace it instead of shielding kids from it to make it part of your family value system. So I would I would go with those three things.
I have a friend who says that there's no learning without pain, and that doesn't mean physical pain. It just means there has to be some sort of feedback mechanism that causes you to learn something, because without that, you don't actually learn it. And I have no idea if it's true or not. But, you know, that's it.
You know, and we talk about like how important it is to doubt when you're a young person and how the turmoil of developmental changes produces insight. And I the older I get, the more I believe in them.
Let's talk about Decision-Making and Bias for a second here. You've argued that our decision making is totally biased by our ideology. We look at the ideologies of others that we don't agree with and we project on them that they're the extremists, not us. And I agree with this wholeheartedly, of course. But how do we solve this problem ourselves? I mean, how do we catch our own version of that extremism? Wow, you're you're not asking light hearted question.
Yeah, you know, we started to do this work, you know, and I think it's more timely than ever today. And, you know, when we study people on opposite ends of the or on different categories in different categories of ideological debates like abortion and the death penalty and and the like and in other kinds of conflicts. And we noticed this really interesting tendency and it really is twofold, which is people tend to assume that they get the facts right.
And and, you know, we call this naive realism and other people call it phenomenal absolutism. But it's the idea that when I look at reality, it's it's and we know how I look at reality is shaped by my emotion and my hunger and social class and all these contextual factors. But we tend to assume we kind of got the facts right. You know, that if I am in a debate and we're debating mass incarceration and I've read a bunch of stuff, been a prison, I will assume, like, yeah, I see the truth.
And then the second thing that happens in this study, this research we did, is when we encounter people who differ from us, I go, that guy thinks we should punish criminals more strongly or that person has a different view of transgender identity. We assume that they are politically and ideologically motivated and are at opposite ends of the continuum. And time and time again, this finding replicates. It's easy to find, which is people think that disputes and debates are really there are two extreme camps and that's all there is.
But the fact of the matter is that's a stereotype of debates. And really, when you look at people's real views, we have a lot of common ground. There are a lot of moderates in debates. There are a lot of people who agree. I may disagree with somebody on tax policy, but I agree with them on funding public schools or whatever the case may be. So there's much more overlap in our ideological attitudes than what we stereotype to be the case.
And I think that I feel we know from there are a couple of things you can do, you know, and one is, man, just get out and talk to people with different ideological views, you know, and you will find that the person who really supports this happened to me recently on an airplane like this guy who supports a really strong police presence in cities. And I live in Berkeley. You worry about police brutality and so forth.
And I understood him, you know, and I could I could appreciate where that belief came from. And we had a really productive dialogue. So get out and talk to people about this stuff and and you'll find there's all this common ground in this this opportunity for mutual understanding. And then I think that what people like John Hate, my good friend, is encouraging is get out of your thought bubble and read stuff, read other opinions. And I read I understand.
And her philosophy of self-expression and and just naked self-interest. I understand it and I feel it. And I know that that's part of me, too. And I know my 18 year old daughter may go through a period where that that philosophy is really important to her. So you get out of your thought bubble and encounter different views.
A lot of people think that you need to agree with it, to understand it. And I think those are two different things. You can understand something. It doesn't mean you agree with it or not, just who you are.
What would you say is your most powerful idea? I mean, what would you like people to grasp most about your work? Can I say, too? Of course, I think that, you know, I remember I was on a panel with the Dalai Lama. They're a bunch of scientists and a bunch of Tibetan Buddhists and and whatever you think of Buddhism, and I admire it. One of the things that is true is they have been doing these deep inquiries, meditating for hours and reflecting and analyzing and taxonomy and describing mental life.
And they've worked really hard at it and and in an open way. And and the Dalai Lama said that the and this is seen in a lot of contemplative traditions, that the mind is compassionate. And I that one just took me aback. And and lo and behold, that's what Darwin was saying. Right. And I think that that is the big thing that was added to humans in our evolution is a compassionate mind. And it's manifest in regions of the brain.
And that vagus nerve and all the prosocial with the fact that, you know, when people are asked to give money away to a stranger, they'll give away 40 percent. And and to me, once you start your understanding of the human mind with that assumption or really generalization from the literature, a lot of things come out of that. Like, God, it's so interesting. I, I find trees to be so beautiful and they have these patterns and I feel like I care for them.
And that is an extension in the aesthetic realm of compassion or. Wow. And I hear beautiful music. I tear up at humanity and I want to be around people I care about. So to me that that is the core thing that has animated my research. And then it just so happened that in a lot of contexts, you if you practice all the extensions of compassion, you'll do OK in terms of rising in social hierarchies and having a lasting contribution.
So that's where I would I would shy away from, too. And I'll give you that.
Doctor, thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking with you. And I wish the rest of my day was as interesting as this. And it was wonderful to talk to you. Thanks for the really deep questions.
Hey, guys, this is Shane again, just a few more things before we wrap up. You can find Schnitz from today's show at F-stop Blogs podcast. You can also find out information on how to get that transcript there. And if you'd like to receive a weekly email from me filled with all sorts of food, go to F-stop blogs, newsletter, the newsletters, all the good stuff I found on the Internet this week that I've read and shared with close friends, books I'm reading and so much more.
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