The bright side of power

The bright side of power

(by Loukas Balafoutas , Helena Fornwagner, and Matthias Sutter

The paper in Nature Communications is here:

Doing research often boils down to answering two questions: first, is there a problem that needs fixing? And if so, what can we do to fix it? The starting point for our article has been the well-known fact that women earn less than men for the same work on average, and that they are under-represented in leading positions in the private and public sector. We need to ask: is this a problem?

We believe the answer is yes. Social justice requires equal opportunities for all regardless of gender, and there is evidence of discrimination against women on the labor market. But it’s not only a question of justice: economic efficiency and firm prosperity have also been shown to increase with gender diversity. And it’s not only a question of discrimination, or of women taking more time off work than men to raise children. Women are often also victims of their own choices – for instance, when they underestimate their abilities, avoid competitive environments, or pass on valuable opportunities.

So how can we fix the problem? In previous research we have evaluated affirmative action programs for women, showing that they can be very effective in encouraging them to enter and perform well in competitive environments. This sounds good, and it is good. But, as economists say, there is ‘no free lunch’ and affirmative action programs are not without shortcomings. They can be expensive to implement, met with resentment, and even backfire. This has motivated us to look for interventions that could be used as alternatives, or complements, to institutionalized affirmative action. This search took us some time, and in the end inspiration came when reading the book Friend & Foe by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, in which the authors report psychological studies on priming.

Priming has long been shown to work wonders in psychological, and more recently, economic research. We are not as rational as we like to think, and subtle cues are often enough to modify our behavior. This is the premise of so-called nudging interventions, and it is precisely what we did in this work: we primed women and men with a sense of power, in the hope that this would close down the gender gap in competitive behavior and restore gender balance. As the title of our paper reveals, it worked like a charm.

Doing justice to its name, power priming is a powerful tool. It affects competitive behavior, risk tolerance, and the quality of choices taken in the experiment. Of course, we cannot precisely identify the mechanisms at play: the human psyche is extremely complicated and works in mysterious ways. But our dataset has allowed us to take a tiny look into the minds and souls of our participants. When asked to write about a situation in which they had power over another individual, or vice versa, many of them came up with fascinating accounts. We were entrusted with stories about troubled childhoods and families, frustrating workplace interactions, and intense emotions such as spite, guilt, regret, euphoria, joy and pain. It is interesting and quite reassuring that, in our experiment, these stories paved the road to gender equality. 

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