What The Expanse Taught Me About the Psychology of Power
Halfway through November, I’ve come to an important realization. I’m not looking forward to the holidays.
Don’t get me wrong. I love roast bird and pie as much as the next person. My lack of holiday spirit has nothing to do with my disdain for tradition or my dread of family gatherings. This year, I’ve been a little distracted by a media event that has crowded out the visions of sugar plums and chestnuts roasting on open fires. On December 13, Season 4 of The Expanse will drop and the anticipation has reduced my favorite holiday traditions to mere afterthoughts.
Before I delve into my love of all things Expanse, I should warn you that this article contains some spoilers. Those of you who have somehow missed The Expanse may want to check out the show over on Amazon before reading this article. And now, back to the show.
To feed my Expanse addiction, I’ve started re-watching the first three seasons. The other night, I settled onto the couch to watch the second episode of Season One.
I watched in sympathetic horror as Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex coped with the destruction of their ship and crew mates.
I gripped my armrest as they battled to stop an airlock breach before their oxygen ran out.
I wanted to scream helpful suggestions at them as they raced to fix their busted comms system so they could radio for help.
By the time the Donnager responded to their distress call, I collapsed onto the sofa, awash in relief.
As my heart rate returned to normal. I was struck by my reaction. I’d already seen the episode and I knew the crew made it out alive. So why was I responding as though I was viewing the evolving crisis for the first time?
I could point to the way the writers masterfully contrast high-stakes action scenes with slower ones where characters interact, get to know each other, and build relationships, but there is a lot of writing out there that is technically polished and still fails to connect with readers.
What makes The Expanse special is its understanding of human psychology and its ability to dramatize how personality and social hierarchy influence decision-making. In dramatizing the crises and conflicts of the Roci crew, The Expanse provides some profound insights about leadership and people’s relationship to power.
It’s not what you know. It’s not even who you know. It’s both.
Throughout Episode 2, Naomi’s intelligence, assertiveness, and formidable engineering skills position her as a rival to Holden’s authority. While Holden has seniority, Naomi has something even more potent. Backup. Each time Holden issues an order, Amos looks to Naomi for direction, making it clear that he answers to her, not Holden, and Naomi doesn’t hesitate to leverage Amos’s loyalty if it means keeping the Roci viable.
Naomi’s ability to build alliances comes to her aid throughout the episode. When the crew needs to amplify the Roci’s radio signal to send out a distress call, it’s Naomi’s ability to connect with crew members that convinces them to implement her ideas. In this pivotal scene, it’s not Naomi’s stellar engineering skills that convince the others to try her ideas. It’s her emotional intelligence.
There is no I in team. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Anybody who’s worked in a corporate environment has probably participated in at least one groan-inducing brainstorming session. Designed to solicit input from the group and allow the best ideas rise to the top, brainstorming sessions all too often devolve into platforms for company stars to hog the spotlight, while less assertive members fade into the background.
As it turns out, brainstorming is a lot better at building group identity and fostering consensus than it is at incubating innovative ideas. In an article for The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer cites a host of studies attesting to brainstorming’s spotty record.
Holden instinctively recognizes what Lehrer demonstrates. Consensus-building is overrated. Sometimes people need a leader to make an executive decision. After Naomi successfully amplifies the Roci’s radio signal, the crew receives a response to their distress call. Their relief lasts about a nanosecond before the crew realizes that the ship belongs to Mars — the only civilization in the solar system capable of creating the stealth tech responsible for destroying the Cant.
While the rest of the crew debates whether to respond to the Donnager’s signal, Holden seizes control of the comms system and reveals that Martian stealth tech destroyed the Cant. His high-risk decision buys the group some much-needed bargaining power as they prepare to board the Donnager.
Leaders put the group first, themselves second.
The Stanford Prison experiment is one of the most controversial studies in the history of psychology, but it provided profound insights into people’s relationship with power. In the experiment, subjects were placed into a university basement and divided into groups of prisoners and guards. Over the course of the experiment, the subjects identified as guards subjected the prisoners to increasingly sadistic, bullying behavior. Meanwhile, the prisoners became more and more submissive. The behaviors became so extreme that researchers suspended the experiment after just six days.
The morally corrosive nature of power is a recurring theme on The Expanse. Billionaire Jules Pierre Mao has almost unlimited resources to spend on the ultra-secret research project his company is carrying out to determine whether a mysterious proto-molecule is evidence of extraterrestrial life. Driven by the pursuit of knowledge, Mao thinks nothing of sacrificing others to get what he wants.
When his lead research scientist needs to run some experiments on human subjects, Mao has the perfect solution. They’ll infect Eros Space Station and use his deceased daughter to incubate the proto-molecule. What’s a child and 100,000 Belters compared to scientific progress?
In contrast to Mao, Holden is a reluctant leader who rejects a fast track to promotion aboard the Cant. It’s not until he’s aboard the Roci and faced with imminent death that he assumes the role of leader. Even then, his primary motive is to secure the survival of the group.
In The Expanse, as in life, the people who most want power are often the least suited to wield it, while people who place the group first often make the most effective leaders.
Narrative as Thought Experiment
As The Stanford Prison Experiment and other studies demonstrate, insight into human behavior is often driven by research with questionable ethics. The Expanse clearly recognizes the dangers of scientific experimentation divorced from responsibility. At the same time, The Expanse engages in its own thought experiment by isolating the crew of the Roci from the larger system they inhabit and giving them high-stakes, morally ambiguous situations to solve. The resulting show is a master class in the art of storytelling and human psychology.