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Mindful : February 2017
I first read Lord of the Flies when I was 15, and my family was on sabbatical in Nottingham, England—for me, the misty land of Robin Hood and D. H. Lawrence. William Golding’s tale of the shipwrecked boys’ descent into depravity—with painted faces, chants, torture of Piggy, and thirst for blood—seemed to resemble the recession-mired England I came to know that year: a place of bullying, teachers humiliating hooligans, 15-year-olds getting drunk at pubs, and skirmishes between the punks and the Teddy boys at school dances. At the heart of Lord of the Flies is a thought experiment known as the “natural state exper- iment.” It asks, What are people like if you put them in a context in which civilization is stripped away, leaving them to behave in their natural state? Absent, in Golding’s terms, “the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law,” what do people do? For many, answers to such thought experiments reveal common assumptions about human nature: that free of the structures and strictures of society, our base and violent tendencies spring forth. Lord of the Flies begins with an election. The boys are to choose between Ralph, who is respectful, calm, and physically imposing, and Jack, who is obsessed with weaponry, meat, tribal markings, and killing the island’s pigs. The boys cast their first votes for Ralph and start forming a society with democratic dia- logue, rules, schedules, and duties. It is only a matter of time, though, before Jack grabs power. He converts the young boys to his cause with face painting. He rules his recruits through coercive bouts of bullying and by telling them chilling tales of supernatural monsters hovering in the forest nearby. By the end of the book, Jack Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and the faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center. He is the author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, from which this piece is adapted. and his tribe are hunting down Ralph as their cannibalistic calls pierce the air. This view of power as coercive is prevalent in our culture, and it has been deeply and endur- ingly shaped by Niccolò Machiavelli and his powerful 16th-century book The Prince. In that book the Florentine author arg ued that power is, in its essence, about force, fraud, ruthless- ness, and strategic violence. Following Machi- avelli, the widespread tendency has been to think of power as involving extraordinary acts of coercive force. Power was what the great dictators wielded; power was embodied in generals making decisive moves on battlefields, businessmen initiating hostile takeovers, coworkers sacri- ficing colleagues to advance their own careers, and bullies on the middle-school playground tormenting smaller kids. To try to see how power actually works in the social groups we inhabit, I have infiltrated college dorms, sororities, fraternities, and chil- dren’s summer camps to document who rises in power. I have captured the substance and spread of reputations and surreptitiously identified which members of groups are gossiped about, and who receives gossip. Whereas the Machiavellian approach to power assumes that individuals grab it through coercive force, strategic deception, and the undermining of others, the scientific work I’ve been doing finds that power is not grabbed but is given to individuals by groups. What this means is that your ability to make a