Water and Empathy

As water becomes an increasingly precious commodity, people and nations will compete to control it.

Ajay Vinze, associate vice provost for graduate education and associate dean for international programs at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe, has received a three-year US$449,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how people collaborate on the complex decisions concerning national resources.

Vinze and five other ASU faculty will explore whether people can be coaxed into relinquishing power for the greater good. Says Vinze, “Little is currently known about how to promote empathy and collaboration in the context of natural resource dilemmas," particularly via digital communications like email.

Using water policy as a context, the researchers are running experiments to explore what conditions lead to success or failure in collaborative approaches. The digital platform for the experiment was created by Vinze, who studies the effects of technology on humans, and Erik Johnston, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Policy Informatics. They paired the platform with WaterSim, a tool created by the Decision Center for a Desert City to estimate water supply and demand for the Phoenix metropolitan area.

About 300 students have taken part in the study so far and about 500 more will do so. Participants interact individually or on teams as researchers change aspects of their role-playing to see what promotes empathy, and the simulator allows participants to see the consequences of their decisions. Vinze hopes the research will help policymakers understand the role of empathy in complex decisional settings.