Power is the ability to control or direct the actions of other humans. Almost all humans have some power, but sometimes it is obsessively sought-after. In evolutionary terms, seeking power is a common genetic strategy in humans because:

  • Powerful individual are better able to respond to dangers or crisis
  • Powerful individuals are dangerous for competitors to attack
  • Powerful individuals can attack competitors without fear of reprisals

By being socially powerful, even an extremely weak individual can use the strength of others to shape the environment for selfish objectives. This is theoretically a big advantage in evolutionary terms. Therefore, human behaviour is influenced by this genetic ‘lust for power’. Not everyone displays it, but for some humans it can be activated by the right social circumstances, and for others it is the central strategy that dominates their life.

In such cases the power is sought not to achieve some other goal, though another goal may be complimentary or at least presented as a facade; instead, the power is sought after to satisfy a deep urge felt by the person. This fact should not be conflated with a belief that social positions of power and authority exist simply to satisfy this urge – positions of authority will occur regardless in all but the simplest human group. However, the occupation and expansion of these positions is the central goal of those with a genetic or social predisposition towards power-lust.

Power-strategies can harm groups
While a strategy of power does provide short-term advantages to the person concerned, it is generally very harmful to other members of a group, for these reasons:

  • Group behaviour becomes disproportionately directed towards satisfying the needs and desires of the power-seeking person.
  • Non-powerful members needs are de-prioritised, resulting in harm or death, even when they are a productive member of a group. General group wellbeing suffers.
  • Other group members are forced to adopt strategies to gain power, in order to defend the group and themselves as individuals from internal aggression.
  • The power-seeking person in turn uses the power increasingly to preserve that power, often by harming or deterring others who might challenge the power. This creates a destructive power-struggle and distracts all members of the group from activities that are more productive.
  • Groups with concentrated power tend towards poor decision-making processes.

The fact that groups with concentrated power are poor decision-makers can be expanded upon:

  • Decisions must now be made with input by fewer individuals. Complex decisions are often beyond the ability for a very small group of power holders to handle effectively.
  • Maintaining power against rivals becomes a biasing factor for decision-making in general. Other factors, such as efficiency or the common-good, are diminished in comparison. A productive or successful rival may be suppressed, even though their behaviour is beneficial.
  • The skillset and mental habits for seizing power are often mutually exclusive with effective decision making skills. In particular power often requires deception and a social denial of the truth, while effective decision making requires the opposite.
  • Concentration of power also implies the negation of meritocracy and restriction of skill-based short-term authority in decision making, which is required for specialist decision making. This is because loyalty to the powerful becomes the primary selection criteria for all senior positions.

Therefore, power-strategies meet opposition

In human history, groups that failed to effectively restrict the power-grabbing tendancies of its members risked serious harm or self-destruction. Such unresponsive genetics were selected against. In particular, those who are not naturally power-seeking are most at risk because they are the least likely to be included in alliances between power-seeking individuals. As a result there is a widespread genetic tendency to resist power strategies:

  • Most people resist or even punish activity that looks like a power-grab, if the resistance is low-cost and seems likely to succeed (eg. suspicion of authority, irreverence, tall-poppy syndrome / Law of Jante) (this can become very harmful if it becomes a crab mentality).
  • Some altruistic people may adopt high-cost opposition to concentrations of power (eg. rebellion). These people may be defended or given support by the broader group. (Note – Resistance often goes wrong. Anti-power rebellion strategies are recognised by some as opportunties for power and often “flipped”, becoming power-strategies in themselves)

Obvious attempts to seek power will usually receive a widespread alliance of opposition or even social sanctions. Resultingly, power strategies are often hidden in some way. They may be disguised as something that is benign, necessary or beneficial, or may simply be kept hidden from the group entirely. Sometimes the power-strategy will only be apparent to a selected victim or victims who will not be in a position to respond.

Power-strategies, and their opposition, become muted, hidden or offer concessions
So, power struggles are often a muted affair, hidden behind the facade of the everyday. The strategies for power and countering power become more oblique:

  • Power-seeking individuals may seek to form alliances with subordinates or partners who are immoral, easily controlled or also power-hungry, by offering incentives, concessions, sancturary or a small share of the power.
  • Power-seeking individuals may develop proto-altruism/consideration for subordinates in order to make their rule either less damaging or more acceptable (eg. sense of responsibility). This concession to the group is usually less than the benefits of power they gain, and may sometimes disappear where there is little possibility of scrutiny by the group.
  • Some altruistic people may seek to gain power first as a counter-strategy (eg. sense of duty). Depending on their character, they will then attempt to wield the power they gain justly for the benefit of all concerned.
  • Many individuals, especially altruistic individuals, tend to support social norms/cultures/social structures that are resistant to the concentration of power or power-seeking individuals (eg. sense of fairness, democracy, rule of law, meritocracy)

Study the abuse of power carefully and oppose it, while supporting the just use of power
In individual manifestations of power strategies, there are a myriad of variations. The size or scale may be small, such as for predatory sociopaths who will target one or two people as victims who they will control and manipulate. The scale may also be large, such as in the case of power-hungry leaders of communities or nations. It is important to note that stated ideological beliefs are not accurate in depicting true genetic, social or emotional orientations to power. Those seeking power are very ideologically adaptable.

True attitudes towards power are often very difficult to identify. Evidence of who is responsible for a power struggle is often ambiguous. For example, acting out of a sense of duty might necessitate seeking power, while a feigned sense of duty is a common yet effective mask for a cynical power-grab. Power-hungry people will go out of their way to convince others that they oppose concentration and abuse of power, at the same time as working for the opposite. Altruists who become overly anxious about threats to the responsible use of power may become ruthless or overzealous and unjustly attack others – for example by harshly crushing all forms of dissent during war time.

If a society is either hierarchical or complex, then it is almost certain that positions of authority are a battleground for the power-hungry and their opponents. Political organisations, big business and government all teem with such activity. Each society is profoundly shaped by either the power-hungry or the just gaining the upper-hand. Understanding the struggles for power, habituating ourselves to use what power we have justly, and supporting a culture that prevents unjust use of power – these steps are vital for those of us who want a good society.

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