Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Are We Wired to Harm or to Help? A Close Look

In an uncertain world with continual headlines of violence, war, discrimination and stigmatization, the question of man’s proclivity to dominate and harm another comes to the forefront.

While perhaps not as riveting as what frightens us, there is also ongoing evidence of another persistent pattern, our inclination to connect, help and cooperate with each other.

A Documentary that Asks- “ What’s Wrong with the World?”

An Important Documentary, “ I AM” by Tom Shadyac, asks two questions: “ What is wrong with our world?” and “ What can we do about it?” After a life-changing accident, Tom Shadyac, the filmmaker known for his blockbusters, “Ace Ventura,” “Liar Liar,” “The Nutty Professor,” and “Bruce Almighty, travels the world to find answers to the question of man’s basic nature- Are we wired to dominate or cooperate?” Interviewing the great thinkers in science, philosophy and religion, the filmmaker gathers evidence that questions the Darwinian perspective of survival of the fittest and shows that in the animal kingdom- the Golden Rule prevails. Discussing with experts the science of mirror neurons, the nature of sympathy, and the universal expression of compassion, the filmmaker builds credence for our natural instinct to cooperate. In the words of Desmond Tutu “ We are — because we belong.”   The use of love as a natural force exemplified by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, etc. challenges our preconceptions about the nature of man and reveals what is right about the world!

 What is it that Challenges Man’s Inclination to Connect?

If we are wired to connect and cooperate, why do we see men violate and humiliate each other across nations, families, schoolyards and personal relationships?

The Meaning of Power

One answer comes from the understanding of power offered by social psychologist and researcher, Dacher Keltner, author of the book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.

According to Keltner, power is about making a difference in the world, in your family, in your relationship –in someone else’s life. Wealth, education and occupational prestige account for only 10 to 15 % of how powerful or influential people actually feel at any time.

The keys ingredients to power are empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude and storytelling. These are potential elements in every social interaction. They are paths to achieving enduring power- between nations or peers.

 The Power Paradox

 What Keltner has found, however, in countless social experiments, is that once power is attained, it can make us vulnerable. We lose the focus on others, compromise empathy, withhold respect and create an urgency for self- gratification which quickly leads to abuses of power.

  • We have seen those who abuse power ultimately topple due to corruption, dishonesty and betrayal of others.
  • We have seen how misuses of power in the workplace, government or family leave others feeling powerless and humiliated. We have seen how anger and shame can lead to violence.

The Positive Use of Power

 For as much as we have seen power slide into abuse and disgrace, we have also seen power retained by those who never lose sight of others and the use their gifts to make a difference in others lives.

Dacher Keltner offers a fivefold path to gaining and retaining power:

  1. Be aware of your feelings of power and your ability to make a difference for the greater good. (One of the most powerful women I have known is Esther, a nurse’s aide whose intelligence and kindness in a senior citizen facility makes her opinion the one that cares and counts.)
  2. Practice humility. Power is a gift. It gives us a chance to make a difference in the world. (Whomever you are helping is also helping you.)
  3. Stay focused on others and share power with generosity. (Mutually empowered spouses have better marriages and more democratic nations where many are empowered have healthier and happier citizens.)
  4. Practice respect and treat others with dignity. (The unexpected act of kindness and respect is priceless to the giver and the recipient.)
  5. Look for opportunities to reduce powerlessness by what you do and what you say. (A concerned bystander becomes a superhero.)

Are We Wired to Harm or to Help? 

 “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”

Victor Frankl


Listen in -Dacher Keltner discusses The Power Paradox on Psych Up Live