Can empathy lead to better decisions in water usage?

August 27, 2015

As the climate in the Southwest becomes hotter and drier, water will become an ever more precious resource, demanded by people with competing interests.

Ranchers and farmers could see their livelihoods threatened by urban areas that scoop up more water as their populations swell. Shrinking lakes could mean fewer tourists and loss of jobs. sprinker watering lawn An interdisciplinary team at ASU is trying to use understanding and compassion to help people make better decisions on how to use and share water in the Southwest. Download Full Image

So who wins?

An Arizona State University team has received a three-year grant to study how people collaborate — or not — on the complex decision of who gets how much water, and how using technology might affect their reactions.

Empathy is the crux of the study. The researchers want to see whether participants can be coaxed into relinquishing power for the greater good.

The National Science Foundation awarded $449,000 to the interdisciplinary group in July. The scholars are from the School of Public Affairs, the W. P. Carey School of Business, the School of Social Work and the Decision Center for a Desert City.

Erik Johnston, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Policy Informatics, is the principal investigator.

About 300 students have taken part in the study so far, he said, and about 500 more will participate over the next three years. They interact individually or on teams using computers, with researchers like Dr. Dara Wald, a post-doctoral fellow in ASU's Center for Policy Informatics, changing different aspects of the role playing to see what promotes empathy. Each session takes about 90 minutes.

“There are a lot of values at play all the time, which is the heart of governance,” Johnston said.

The digital platform that delivers the interactive modules was created by Johnston and Ajay Vinze, associate dean for international programs at the W. P. Carey School of Business. Vinze, who studies the role of technology in human interaction, is a co-principal investigator for the study and also associate vice provost for graduate education at ASU.

They then paired their platform with the WaterSim estimator tool created by the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC), which set the stage for this work.

“We created a mobile version of WaterSim that uses their underlying logic and their scientific reasoning behind it. When people are allocated water choices, the consequences they see have been scientifically derived from the research at DCDC,” Johnston said.

Water-use policy is a good example for interdisciplinary study, Vinze said.

“These are complex and difficult challenges to address,” Vinze said. “In order to solve the big problems of the world, we need to look at them in an interdisciplinary way.”

Empathy is measured at the beginning and end of the sessions using a survey developed by Elizabeth Segal, a professor in the School of Social Work and another co-principal investigator.

Vinze said that the interplay of empathy and technology is key.

“Empathy is not a new concept, but the notion of ‘how does empathy change if I look through the lens of technology?’ is new,” he said.

Vinze and Johnston had already done some preliminary research on that.

“If you understand where the other person is coming from, you’re likely to see the other person empathetically. If you feel more empathy, you’re more likely to put your own resources at risk for an outcome,” Johnston said. “We thought ‘This is simple. We’ll get them to walk a mile in another’s shoes.’

“But it wasn’t that easy. Everything we tried made the situation worse, with lower empathy outcomes and less likelihood of collaboration.

“It’s very complex.”

The study participants play differing roles. For example, subjects might be a big city negotiating with a small city, with different levels of political clout.

The game poses various scenarios for water usage, considering effects on variables such as jobs, sustainability, food scarcity and quality of life.

“When the undergrads played, they got rid of all the pools. But they don’t look at the misery aspect of that,” Johnston said.

The model computes all the dimensions so participants can see the system-wide consequences of their decisions – a factor that could have profound real-life value, Johnston said.

“There’s not a clean answer,” he said. “It helps to focus their attention on where there are conflicts: Do we have more sustainability in the future or more jobs now? Do we invest in food security or community pools?

“They get to see the trade-offs between those decisions.”

Johnston said the team, which also includes Ned Wellman, an assistant professor in the W.P. Carey School's Department of Management,  hopes that real policymakers can eventually use the models, which would put their decisions to the test.

“This is an argument that we’ve been making for a while: What is the notion of professional use of data when everyone can find data that supports their own viewpoint?”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter, ASU Now


Daring to dream of a flying car

August 27, 2015

Editor's note: This story is part of our back-to-school spotlight on notable incoming students. The series will run during the first two weeks of the fall semester. Read our other profiles here.

Walter Bonar’s focus hasn’t wavered since first grade, when his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Walter Bonar Walter Bonar wants to build a car that can fly. It's one of the reasons he came to ASU from North Carolina; he believes the school's engineering schools can help him achieve that dream. Download Full Image

“A rocket scientist.”

Through years of attending aerospace engineering camps and constructing rockets that fly more than 1,200 feet above the ground, Bonar’s dream was never deferred: He was going to be a rocket scientist.

And as someone who grew up in Marvin, North Carolina, he had to give strong consideration to extending his dream through universities in his home state. But when Bonar started comparing schools, he was surprised about what he found at Arizona State University.

“There were more resources available there, especially for undergraduate students,” Bonar said via telephone.

It’s why the Barrett, The Honors College student will be starting this fall as a freshman studying aerospace engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, rather than staying at home in the Tar Heel State.

“There are bound to be one or two people who are thinking about the same things that I am and we can come together and try to make something better, something that’s never been done before,” Bonar said.

Like, say, building a flying car.

It’s not exactly constructing a rocket set for a path to Mars, but Bonar says as he has done more research, he has become intrigued by subspace aerospace engineering.

“I just really want to explore what’s up there,” he said. “The physics required for that is pretty intense; when you have to include air resistance into physics equations, it’s a bear.”

He has been thinking about more than just equation. Bonar can talk about the excitement of flying cars, and the issues an armada of these things would create.

“If there are millions of flying cars, we’re going to have to think of the ways to reduce the noise,” he said.

Perhaps some time in the next four years, Bonar and his ASU colleagues will be worrying about these problems as they craft a car that could fly us to North Carolina and back. But in the meantime he’ll be thinking about other issues, like trying to find time to play his French horn while studying to be an engineer and hoping his family is doing OK across the nation.

It’s a common concern for far-flung students, but Bonar has extra reason to worry: His dad is recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During the treatment Bonar donated his own stem cells to his father to help rebuild his immune system. The treatment has been working. Bonar’s dad is scheduled to go back to work later this month or next.

“This is really awesome that I was able to do this for my dad,” he said.

So, no doubt, Bonar’s mind will be back in North Carolina, missing family, friends and familiarity. But there’s one thing this future rocket scientist won’t be missing: the Southeastern climate.

“No humidity,” Bonar said of Tempe. “That’s a perk.”