Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is not an anomaly. He is just another man who attained great power. And as Lord Acton famously said, power corrupts. In Weinstein’s case, that corruption took the form of preying on women. Power also distorts and blinds some who hold it to the real feelings of those around them.
So goes the argument put forward in the latest online edition of the Harvard Business Review, the nation’s premier journal of corporate wisdom and theory. In an essay titled “Sex, Power and the Systems That Enable Men Like Harvey Weinstein,” psychologist Dacher Keltner explains:
Powerful men, studies show, overestimate the sexual interest of others and erroneously believe that the women around them are more attracted to them than is actually the case. Powerful men also sexualize their work, looking for opportunities for sexual trysts and affairs, and along the way leer inappropriately, stand too close, and touch for too long on a daily basis, thus crossing the lines of decorum — and worse.
Keltner, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, is in a position to know.
For 25 years, Keltner has studied people like Weinstein, leaders who abuse their power and prey upon the vulnerable.
“Every year, every six months, we have some guy who acts like this,” Keltner told The Washington Post.
Indeed, such allegations have become a recurring part of the news cycle — whether they involve a politician, a celebrity, an executive, a high-profile athlete or a prelate in the Catholic Church.
So when the sexual abuse allegations against Weinstein began pouring in last week, Keltner thought, “Well, there he goes again,” he said. “The next male in power who is thrusting himself on young women.”
But Keltner’s reaction was more complex. Yes, he was “repulsed” by the indefensible accusations. Weinstein very well may have been a bully his entire life, Keltner thought. But more often, behavior like Weinstein’s is an abuse of power that is both predictable and explained through social psychology.
Keltner published a book last year called “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.” In executive leadership classes at Berkeley, he has taught scores of leaders in government, finance, technology and medical industries. He is also an expert on emotion — he served as a scientific consultant on the Pixar film “Inside Out.”
From Keltner’s research, one takeaway is clear: A feeling of power can transform people’s behavior, making them more impulsive and less empathetic to others’ needs. It “turns up the volume on your preexisting tendencies,” Keltner said.
If a person previously gambled or swore, a feeling of power will cause them to gamble or swear even more, Keltner said. People who feel powerful are more likely to make risky choices or speak their mind.
This impulsive nature also extends to sexual advances, Keltner said. Hierarchies “free up males in power to do what they want sexually,” he said.
Keltner referenced studies showing that when a man feels powerful, the empathy regions in his brain are less active. And in some cases, when a man in a position of power is with a subordinate female, he might assume that nervous behavior from the woman means she is attracted to him.
Some men who display this entitlement, this superiority, might feel as if “they kind of like it, young women like it.”
“Weinstein probably did not see or grasp that he is an immoral beast,” Keltner said.
Keltner defines the paradox of power as this: “The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power,” he wrote in an essay that led to his book.
In one of Keltner’s studies, participants were randomly assigned to positions of leadership within small groups. When each group was given a plate of cookies, with one extra cookie, the person in power most often took the last cookie. Moreover, the people in power were more likely to eat in an impulsive way, with their mouths open and crumbs falling on their shirts.
“In one experiment, participants in power took candy from children without blinking an eye,” Keltner wrote in the article Friday in the Harvard Business Review.
His findings indicate a pattern of entitlement among some powerful people. His studies have found that drivers of luxury cars are less likely to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks and more likely to cut off other motorists.
Keltner said he used to believe that women in power would abuse that power as much as men. But new data has emerged showing that such women are less vulnerable to corruption than men, he said. In addition, men are more likely than women to engage in sexual aggression.
“It may be that this is a little bit more of a male thing,” he said, “but we don’t really know.” As more women rise to positions of power in government and government settings, the differences in gender will be made more clear to researchers, he said.
Keltner said he believes we may have reached a “tipping point” in the fight against sexual abuse. “The conversation has really changed,” he said, in large part because more women have come forward with their stories, and more women hold positions of influence.
Hollywood, Keltner said, could learn from other industries in which women have risen to positions of leadership in higher proportions, such as medicine, higher education and law. It is “stunning” to Keltner that only 4 percent of film directors are women, he said.
Even if 30 percent of the directors in the industry were women, it would mean that ore women would be at cocktail parties, at the office, on boards advising people like Weinstein. “It would just be a different game.”
Keltner described occasionally seeing moments of reckoning among students in his executive leadership classes with influential positions.
They may reach a point where they realize that “pretty clearly they’re just not thinking carefully about other people,” Keltner said.
Acknowledging these tendencies among people in power is the first step in controlling them.
As Keltner writes in the Harvard Business Review, “We have to recognize the banality of Harvey Weinstein, and turn our attention to changing the social context in ways that make the human tendency to abuse power a thing of the past.”
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