Stories of Power and Influence

Most of us live under the illusion that we are our own rational agents. In this illusion we choose freely what we think, believe and feel. If you change your mind about something, you will likely explain that you heard a compelling reason to do so. But depending on how quickly your mind was changed, I bet it felt uncomfortable, even if briefly.

Unless there was influence involved.

Note that I am making careful choice of words here to avoid overlap in meaning. Do me a favor and don’t try to Google for any definitions, as the dictionary definition will differ from what I use them for here. You’ll probably understand from context what I mean.

In the book Chimpanzee Politics, Frans de Waal explains that primatologists understand two different kinds of influence among chimps. The first is formal dominance, which humans might understand as a person’s formally given rank, and then power itself, which is a chimp’s ability to leverage social bonds into influence. The example used in the book is an infant chimpanzee who uses his mother’s influence to coerce another female chimp into suckling him. (I say coerce because I recall the encounter being unfriendly.)

The above account is from a real world observation. Read the book if you’re curious; it’s a page turner and there is no other book like it.

But that is about chimpanzees. We have no access to their inner thoughts. So let’s turn to a fictional story for a moment to see how influence might look in a person’s mind.

Imagine you are a Persian historian recording a Spartan soldier’s account of battle. Your job is to tell the story, but he uses profanity while telling it. Because king Xerxes will read it, your intuition tells you to censor the Spartan’s words, sparing your king from reading the profanity. Maybe you’re worried about your head. Whatever lies at the heart of your motivation, you think it is the best course of action.

Then the king tells you, “No, leave it in.”

How do you rationalize that sudden change in your planned actions when it comes from a divinely appointed source? Here’s how Steven Pressfield imagines it in “Gates of Fire”:

“Yet did His Majesty in His God-inspired wisdom instruct His servant so to translate the man’s speech as to render it in whatever tongue and idiom necessary to duplicate the precise effect in Greek.”

Look at those words. “God-inspired wisdom”. Can’t argue with that. But when it comes to rationalization, that’s exactly the point.

Now we move on to a real world example.

I was working together with my mother to get my grandma out of the house and shop for new glasses. It was a confusing situation because of my grandmother’s age. In my mind, she is my last living grandparent, and damn it, she needed new glasses. So she was getting to that store. We needed to do it safely, but we couldn’t find a cane for her to use. (She doesn’t know her prescription and we didn’t think it would be as easy as bringing her some to try on. In retrospect, that would’ve worked too.)

Amidst the confusion, she suggested that she go without one, and my immediate reaction was, “Okay grandma.”

But my mother interjected, “No, we’re going to find the cane first before we go.” And just like that, we were back to looking for her cane.

Do you see what happened there?

Look carefully and you can tell that I was not at all committed to the position (didn’t have time to be). I did not make repeated commitments, and my mother overruled me in less than a second.

It would be easy to look at this situation and call it rational. My grandmother suggested one possibility and I immediately conformed to the possibility. But being 90 years old, it was easy for my mother to overrule both of us. If it was between myself and my mother — us being a family of two — I probably would have challenged her with an argument for the case of grandma not using a cane.

Note that I primed you to think of safety as a primary concern by mentioning that she is my last living grandparent, and by putting “safely” in italics. Interesting enough, I had safety on my mind in the moments leading up to my grandmother’s suggestion, and she still persuaded me.

Now you’ll notice how drastically the situation changes when I include another piece of information I became privy to later: My grandmother had fallen recently. My mother knew and I didn’t. But that didn’t change the course of influence because she didn’t mention it. It was enough for her to say, “No, we’re going to find the cane first,” and that was that.

Do you see the persuasion? I do.


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