What is Power, Really?

Power is the ability to make binding decisions. Nothing more, nothing less.

Decision making can take a bunch of different forms.

But, as with most things in life, making decisions in cooperative ways is often best, for a variety of reasons.

Most people have undoubtedly heard the adage: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And this does appear to be a truism when people talk about authoritarian notions of “power over,” which is how lots of people think about power in general. Cultural PTSD says this kind of “power over” is very much overvalued and over represented in many Western cultures.

But decision making that is done cooperatively does not seem to corrupt. This kind of shared power is often done routinely and intentionally in (healthy) egalitarian partnerships and friendships.

People cooperatively make decisions about what to have for dinner, who will take the dog to the vet, and so on. Egalitarian partners will discuss larger issues like where to live or what career moves to make with the intent to come to a shared decision about what to do. In my experience, shared power like this does not corrupt, and is a healthy way to make decisions.

Shared decision making does tend to be used more often in smaller scale situations, but a quick look at the highest functioning democracies in the world shows that shared decision making certainly works to support democratic values**.

Why make decisions cooperatively?

Well, a thorough answer could make a great book in and of itself, but here are a few reasons.

1) When decisions are made cooperatively, there is likely to be fuller “buy in,” and a shared sense of vision and responsibility. That makes it more likely that there will be more enthusiasm for the decision, and more willingness to people to actively do things to make the decision a reality.

2) The science around collective intelligence in groups shows that without a doubt, decision making done in cooperative ways begets simply–better– decisions because it takes everyone’s needs, wants, expertise and points of view into consideration. It begets more effective and agreeable solutions. The science is quite clear about this. See work done by Anita Woolley or Thomas Malone on this topic, for starters.

3) Abuse of marginalized people will be unlikely to occur. Imposing decisions onto people that harm them is abusive. Full stop.

I’m sure there are a ton of other reasons why cooperative decision making is the best way to use power, but…those three right there are pretty important to most folks.

**According to the Economist Democracy Index of 2022, Norway, New Zealand, and Iceland are the most democratic countries in the world. I’m not an expert in this, but all of these countries haves -several- parties that regularly form coalitions that seem to pretty regularly shift a bit. I’m linking the Wikipedia page to the data rather than the Economist’s own site because Wikipedia has all the tables in the link, The Economist report has to be downloaded https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index