Why Do Bullies Gain Power?


Dacher Keltner’s research shows that sustained power comes as a result of some surprisingly friendly traits. Despite this, bullies do rise to power, and wield it for long periods of time.

You might be wondering: Don’t totalitarian dictators and bullies successfully wield power for long periods of time and do a lot of damage? How does that line up with this notion of survival of the kindest?

It’s true: The coercive, bullying, Machiavellian style can lead to gains in power. Although studies show that bullies are not respected by their peers, are often isolated, and don’t have much sustained influence, the sixth-grade bully can get a lot of attention and influence others, just as the Machiavellian who rises to corporate or political power can make lives difficult and do much harm while they retain power. There are certain contexts, historical periods, and political moments where Machiavellianism and fear-mongering seems to work particularly well. Research I’ve been doing recently suggests that when people feel they have little control in their lives and their economic lives have suffered, they are more likely to be drawn to a coercive leadership style. It also appears that more men than women are drawn to a coercive style. To read more from Dacher Keltner, click here.