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Nov 24, 2022 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Exploring the science of power from the body to body politic

Today we publish a discussion paper by cultural thinker and Fellow at the cross-party think tank Demos, Suzanne Alleyne exploring the science of power from the body to body politic

The paper builds on Alleyne’s research project ‘Neurology of Power ®’, and her work as a Research Fellow at Demos, examining what science can teach us about the effect of power on the human experience. The aim is to continue to bring together multidisciplinary science, data, thinking and practice to catalyse effective action. 

Here we summarise the key points, and set out the context and rationale for our work in this area.

Through a wellbeing framing, Suzanne Alleyne’s discussion paper considers how power and agency relate to:

  • our individual physical and mental health;
  • our relationships and wellbeing as communities;
  • our leaders and decision makers.

The paper looks at the ways power plays out in the body and brain, and what that might mean for public policy creation: how it is made, who it is for and what it is aiming to achieve.

Power can be conceptualised as the ability to influence the actions of others. Current research in the field of neuroscience indicates that holding power can reduce empathy and social awareness, whilst powerlessness can affect decision-making and risk perceptions. These theories have wide implications for those in power.

“This paper is about power: the experience of having it, not having it and how the two experiences reinforce one another…” – Suzanne Alleyne 

“I am not a scientist; I am a cultural thinker”

In the paper’s introduction, Alleyne outlines her position at the intersection of research, strategy and conversation. The paper is informed by her years researching the latest evidence on the neuroscience of power and by her lived experience.

A core part of Alleyne’s working practice is inclusiveness and the paper is designed to be accessible and informative to a breadth of readership, whether or not they have specific expertise in neuroscience, power, wellbeing or policymaking.

Alleyne’s key recommendations

  • The way we make policy must change – we need to invert existing power structures to prioritise collaboration with communities most affected by strategies.
  • How we work is as important as what we achieve – society, organisations and systems must be designed around power-sharing and equitable practice.
  • We need to invest in better education and training – decision makers and leaders need to understand their relationship to power and how it plays out, both personally and within their organisations.

What the evidence tells us about power, agency and control

“I have always felt that lasting wellbeing without power is almost impossible. The ability to shape your own life is core to the purpose and happiness we all crave.” – Suzanne Alleyne 

According to findings from the World Happiness Report, the freedom to choose what we do in life is one factor that explains the difference between high and low wellbeing countries. 

People who believe that the outcome of their actions depends on internal factors, such as effort and skills, have greater appreciation of freedom of choice compared with people who attribute outcomes to external factors such as fate or destiny.

This is connected to the need for autonomy, one of three basic psychological needs outlined in self-determination theory. Alongside competence and relatedness, evidence indicates that autonomy is fundamental to wellbeing across cultures and is strongly related to happiness, life satisfaction and purpose. 

Feeling like we have influence over decisions in our local area is part of community power, and one of the factors that determines community wellbeing. This includes participation in local and joint decision making, and is often measured as feeling seen, heard or understood. For ways to measure influence, explore our Measure Banks for Perception of Influence and General Self-Efficacy scales.

Current evidence indicates that if we feel more in control of our lives, we tend to be more optimistic about the future, as well as happier and healthier. In contrast, from our research with partners in South Australia, we know that people who feel that they do not have control are over 10 times more likely to have poor wellbeing. This is partly because feeling in control and optimistic is related to having effective coping strategies.

What does this mean for leaders and policy makers?

Governance is a key driver of wellbeing. When people are satisfied with the way they are governed, wellbeing is higher and more equal. This is measured in terms of trust in key society institutions and satisfaction with public services, economy and democracy.

Analysis using the World Bank indicators shows ‘effectiveness of government services’ and ‘efficiency of government and policy delivery’ are most important for people, particularly at lower GDP levels. The European Social Survey suggests that once a country reaches a good level of GDP, other governance factors become important, particularly ‘voice and accountability’, ‘political stability’ and ‘absence of violence and terrorism’. 

Policy making is what a government does to make a change in the real world, dictating what the public sector does and how. Globally, 37% of people think that their government doesn’t care about them. To address this, a wellbeing approach to policy includes shifting from ‘doing to or for’ and ‘deficits’ to building capabilities and assets. Read the Carnegie UK Trust’s discussion paper on The Enabling State for more detail.

As Alleyne proposes, understanding and using power differently will help build the policy solutions we need. This supports a more collaborative model of leadership, prioritising listening and understanding to involve the people who will be most directly affected, and builds legitimacy and trust.

What we are doing next to address the evidence gaps

We are conducting a rapid evidence review focusing on the concepts of agency, control and power at the community level

We plan to explore the evidence for both individual and workplace agency and control in due course, subject to funding. If you’d like to work with us on these projects, please get in touch.


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