Why Do We Seek Power?

Zoe MillerSeptember 11, 2016PowerThe Big Question

Imagine two kids in a fight at school. You’ve probably seen something like this before; a pair of fourth or fifth graders who have decided words will not work anymore to settle their differences.

One has said something that has the other totally steamed in front of all their friends. The victim looks around for support from her peers and finds none. She spits an insult in response, and her rival responds by kicking her in the shins. They both kick each other as hard as they can for five minutes. It’s sort of primal. They don’t really have any reason to dislike each other, but they are driven by human nature to compete. Just about everybody, from kids to world leaders, wants to gain power over others.

We all experience power dynamics in our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not. When you speak to someone, go to school, or play a game, you are entering a situation where power dynamics exist. When you are speaking and someone talks over you, they assert power. When someone moves aside for you in the hall, you are being given the power in that interaction. There is no interaction in which power doesn’t play a role; if something involves people, it involves power. The world is driven by people or groups of people seeking to gain dominance. But why?

To understand why people seek power it is necessary to first understand the meaning of the word. Power is the level of control one has over an interaction. The interaction can be of any sort, from a glance across the room to two countries signing a treaty. Power is not a permanent condition; one’s power can change from moment to moment and situation to situation. Someone who has all the power in one situation (a middle schooler intimidating a younger kid) can have none in another (that same middle schooler being yelled at by his mother). Power is like a hill; every time people interact, they move up or down, the powerful moving higher than the people they dominate.

Power can exist in many different contexts, but they’re all interconnected. Usually, in any given exchange or relationship between two people, one person has more power than the other. When you have less, you are not in control of the situation and therefore potentially unsafe and unable to meet your needs. You can be threatened, humiliated, and manipulated. This dynamic isn’t just limited to individuals. Whole countries, or groups of people, can seek power as a unit.

People of color, women, people of different sexual orientation, people in poverty, and other groups are often put in danger by power imbalances within society. Oppressed people seek justice so that they can attain security and power within their lives to have the same freedom as everyone else.

In the 1950s and 1960s, while African Americans had the legitimate right to vote, they were forced to pass difficult and often irrelevant “literacy tests” in order to be allowed to do so, robbing them of a voice within their own government. The right to vote unhindered is a form of power. Without it, and without affording all people equal rights, they become subject to the policies of elected officials they had no power electing. The civil rights marches on Selma and Montgomery, as part of large scale protests for voting and equal rights, were motivated by a search for justice and power — the power and the right to vote and be represented. To be subject to a country’s laws, but not have a voice in their creation, puts people at a huge disadvantage. The present continuation of the civil rights movement is a reaction to this same reality. Being in a minority group within a society, without full representation in the government or legal system, can be dangerous. The search for safety has driven civil rights movements throughout history and continues to drive them today.

Many people who belong to dominant groups can often develop racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted, views because they fear losing power. Those in control recognize that it can be frightening to lose their power. They understand they often have it much better off in life being in control and will do anything to keep their position. This can lead to greed, corruption and crime, especially hate crimes: cowards fearing that their position of power is slipping away from them. Subconsciously or not, bigotry derives from the fear of losing control.

Countries can demonstrate a similar motivation to pursue power, but on a much bigger scale. A nation may strive to be dominant in war, trade, and diplomacy because it seeks security for its citizens. Different groups of people come together, united by this common pursuit of power and security. For instance, the 13 American colonies joined together to form a unified army and government. They gained both trade and military power over the British and the Native Americans, causing a huge loss of income for the British and a wide-scale loss of property, culture, and life that all but wiped out Native American society in North America. Meanwhile, the United States became one of the richest countries in the world through the land and resources it claimed. People in nations with less power suffer while people in nations with more prosper, so everyone has some stake in the fate of their own country.

Often, power exchange between counties is in the context of war, but it can also occur in trade. For instance, in England in the mid-19th century, there was a high demand for products from China. England was spending money importing Chinese porcelain, feeding its tea addiction, and buying other goods from China. However, China did not need British goods so had no need to import, and had a thriving economy. The term for this is a trade imbalance. Importing goods from one country when your country does not export enough of its own goods is a power disadvantage, and can put a country’s economy and the well-being of its citizens at risk.

In an attempt to regain power, England, through its colonies in India and South Asia, began exporting opium to China. Chinese leaders took issue with this and tried to suppress these exports. A country of opium addicts who were regularly paying British merchants was at a power disadvantage. The Chinese wanted to keep their country productive, unified, safe from outside threats, and economically stable. The conflicts that eventually broke out were known as the Opium Wars, causing China serious social and economic disruption, but benefiting England and its colonies. Tensions over what was originally a simple trade imbalance escalated into war, with neither country willing to yield power. The lives of both countries’ citizens were put at risk. At the end of these conflicts, England acquired Hong Kong, a major loss for China. China also lost much of the power it enjoyed before the wars, and many of its citizens fell into poverty, while England gained land and wealth.

From fights between children to wars between nations, we seek power in an attempt to ensure our own sense of safety. Fear of losing power may be what drives us to seek control over any interaction. We seek power to be safe. We seek power, sometimes, to survive.


Aretha, David. The Story of the Selma Voting Rights Marches in Photographs. New York: Enslow Publishers, 2014.

Ashkenas, Jeremy and Haeyoun Park. “The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments.” The New York Times, April 8, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/09/03/us/the-race-gap-in-americas-police-departments.html.

Liptak, Adam. “Racial Bias in Louisiana Jury Selections Spurs Broader Scrutiny.” The Dallas Morning News, August 16, 2015. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/local-news/20150816-racial-bias-in-louisiana-jury-selections-spurs-broader-scrutiny.ece.

Wei, Yuan. Chinese Account of the Opium War. Translated by E.H. Parker. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh Limited, 1888.

Zoe Miller is a senior at Saint Ann’s School. She lives in Brooklyn and has written for KidSpirit Online throughout high school.