The Missing Link: Empathy, Power and Collaboration

“That some people have more power than others is one of the most palpable facts of human existence.” Robert A. Dahl (1957, p 1).

For three years our team has explored the relationships among power inequalities and collaborative behavior (within the context of water resource management) (see CPI). We have focused on how and whether people are likely to cooperate with others to manage water collaboratively. Our preliminary results suggest an important relationship between social power (the ability to influence others by controlling resources; Fiske, 1993) and prosocial behavior (concern for the well-being of others and willingness to cooperate).

Within natural resource collaboration, power is the ability to control or withhold resources and influence decision making (Fiske, 1993; Reed, 2008). Natural resource management decisions are complex and often span several jurisdictions. Effective collaborative governance requires the sharing of power and resources between stakeholders. Unequal power has previously been described as a key barrier to natural resource co-management (for a definition of co-management and the stages of this process see Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2007) (Ansell & Gash, 2008). The co-management of natural resources is uniquely susceptible to inequalities of power over scarce of resources and simultaneously necessitates collaboration between multiple diverse stakeholders (Ansell & Gash, 2008; Leach, 2006).

There is a large body of research that suggests that the collaborative process can overcome power inequalities and conflict, and lead to prosocial behaviors and management decisions (Buckles & Rusnak, 1999; Ansell & Gash, 2008) that contribute to resolving natural resource co-management challenges (Ostrom, 2000). The assumption is that this happens, in an ideal world, because face-to-face conversations within the collaborative process change stakeholder perceptions, promote perspective taking, shared resources, understanding and common aims (Ansell & Gash, 2008; Habermas, 1984), which overcome power inequalities and conflict, and lead to prosocial behaviors and management decisions (Buckles & Rusnak, 1999; Ansell & Gash, 2008).

Although it is widely recognized that power influences collaborative outcomes, the pathway connecting power and collaboration and the variables that influence this relationship are not well understood. Warner (2006) has suggested that few true examples exist of collaborative behavior as a result of shared perspective taking, or understanding of a shared vision. There is currently minimal understanding about how individuals and groups respond to asymmetrical power within the collaborative process (e.g., losing or gaining resources, access to resources, etc.) (Ostrom 2011). Moreover, power within collaboration is often treated as a static construct or starting condition of collaboration. We believe that the process of collaboration is a complex and dynamic system and is therefore responsive to both initial power conditions and to power shifts within the system that affect stakeholder choices, the trajectory of the process, and management outcomes. Researchers have primarily focused on the challenge of starting power differentials on the collaborative process and failed to address the consequences of shifting power dynamics (e.g., gaining or losing power) within the collaborative process for prosocial behavior and collaborative outcomes. To address these dynamics, our research has focused on two specific questions: 1) what happens to empathy and collaborative behavior when participants start with high and low power? and 2) what happens to empathy and collaborative outcomes when power shifts in the process of collaborating?

As the eminent political scientist Robert Dahl noted in 1957, power and its definition are context dependent and complicated. There are examples of elevated social power levels encouraging goal-driven behavior (see Côté et al. 2011). In some cases, these can actually increase cooperation (Galinsky, Magee, Inesi, & Gruenfeld, 2006, but also interact with social orientations that promote selfishness (Chen, Lee-Chai, & Bargh, 2001). Other researchers have found that perceived power in relationships – “an individual’s ability to influence another person or persons” (Anderson, John, and Keltner, 2012, p 315) – did not increase deceitful or manipulative behavior, and a higher sense of power was not significantly related to selfishness, cold or hostile personality characteristics (Anderson et al. 2012). Still other research has found that after priming participants by asking them to remember feelings of high power and low power, high power respondents were less accurate at judging emotion (i.e., empathic accuracy) (Galinsky, Magee, Inesi, & Gruenfeld, 2006), were more prone to cheating, and felt more entitled to negative social behavior (condemned speeding and tax evasion more among others than themselves, see Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it). The challenge of context, definitions and complexity surrounding power drove Dahl to describe the study of “power” as “a bottomless swamp” (1957, p 1). These findings have at times caused us to consider throwing in the towel.

Despite the challenge of understanding power, we’re glad we stuck with it. First, power is a ubiquitous feature of individual and group relationships (Anderson et al. 2001; Gray-Little and Burks, 1983; Savin-Williams, 1979) and we would be remiss to ignore its important role in social action. Second, recent research (using surveys, experiments and observations) confirms our preliminary results and highlights the relationship between social power and concern for others (across multiple situations). Surveys of undergraduate students revealed that individuals who perceived themselves as powerful in relationships (a proxy for social power) were less compassionate in response to suffering (see recent articles Science Daily and NYTimes). Using rigged Monopoly games, researchers found that inequalities in wealth (i.e., twice the starting paper money, additional dice, and additional resources throughout the game – higher bonus for passing go) led to dramatic changes in the behavior of the “wealthy” player (see Planetsave and the Ted Talk by Paul Piff). In addition, outside of the lab, without priming or experimental manipulation, observations of hundreds of drivers revealed that as the cost of the cars increased, drivers were increasingly likely to break the law (i.e., not stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk). Participants who were richer were more likely to cheat to earn credits toward a cash prize and less likely to donate money to strangers; individuals who felt rich stole two times as much candy, after being informed that the candy was reserved for children in the next room, as participants who felt poor (Piff, 2013). In all of these cases, power decreased empathy and concern for others, which increased unethical self-interested behavior, lying in negotiations, and law breaking (Piff, 2013).

The findings from Piff, Keltner and others – that wealth increases unethical and self-interested behavior and lying, and decreases empathy – confirm preliminary results from our own research, connecting power to empathy and collaborative behavior. These results have identified what we believe is a possible mechanism for how power inequalities lead to collaborative failure (i.e., delay or prevent natural resource collaboration): power messes with social empathy, which is necessary for collaborative action. As CPI Director Erik Johnston has put it: “empathy is the oil of social systems.” Empathy is necessary for meaningful collaboration and power can either enhance the effect of empathic behavior or decrease empathy toward others, which influences prosocial behavior.

Empathy is “the process(es) whereby one person can come to know the internal state of another and be motivated to respond with sensitive care” (Batson 2011, p.11). Empathy is a multidimensional construct that includes (1) an affective – physical or emotional response, (2) perspective taking, and (3) the adoption of empathic action (Segal, 2011). Empathy is a vital predictor of successful collaborative behavior (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). In the field of Social Work, empathy has long been recognized as a driver of social responsibility and social justice (diagram below from Segal, E.A., Cimino, A., Gerdes, K.E., Harmon, J.K. & Wagaman, M.A. (2013) reprinted here with the permission of Dr. Liz Segal (ASU)).

Our preliminary research on power suggests that power can, in some cases, lessen or even prevent some or all of the components of empathy, which in turn prevents prosocial behavior within the collaborative process. In other words, power, and specifically control over wealth and resources, reduces empathy, which reduces collaboration.

An ongoing literature review reveals that one of the primary reasons for collaborative behavior is participant self-interest. If power leads to self-interested behavior, which reduces empathy, perhaps power or power inequalities prevent the three-part process of empathy from happening and ultimately prevent collaboration. In this case, empathy could be a critical mediator, explaining the pathway through which power influences collaborative behavior, or moderator, affecting the strength and direction of the relationship between collaboration and power (for an explanation of mediator and moderator variables see Baron & Kenny, 1986).

This leads to a number of additional questions, including: 1) Is empathy a moderating or mediating variable between power and collaboration? 2) What are the effects of prosocial behavior driven by self-interested behavior? 3) If empathy is critical, how can we make it visible throughout the collaborative process? 4) What would this mean for other situations that require empathy (e.g., jury selection – see Silverstein, 2013) and will this be enough to overcome power dynamics, stereotypes, and social norms? 5) How would empathy training differ for individuals in low power and high power positions?

There are a number of possible pathways that empathy and power could interact: 1) Powerful stakeholders start a collaboration with less empathic accuracy, less affective or emotional response to suffering, and are therefore less willing to adopt empathic action at the end of the collaboration. 2) The collaborative process itself causes powerful people to respond to social concerns with reduced empathy, triggering a negative reaction to empathic action. 3) Power shifts within the collaborative process affect stakeholder empathy, which affect the trajectory of the process, and ultimately management outcomes.

There currently exists a shortage of research on the process of collaboration (McGuire, 2006) and no comprehensive framework on power in collaborative settings (Huxham & Vangen, 2005). Most of the research on power to date has focused on high power participants, but it is equally important to understand how empathy mediates the relationship between low power and prosocial behavior.

Our research team is continuing to explore the dynamics of power and empathy within collaborative processes. Our goal is to develop techniques for healthy, robust and lasting collaborative partnerships that promote effective natural resource management and can significantly improve social and civic society. We are collecting case studies, surveys and empirical results to test a comprehensive model of power and empathy within co-management processes and cases from the literature on collaborative management. Check back with the CPI in the fall for an update on the results of this research.


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