A Day in the Life of an Undergrad

I am in good spirits today. I presented my honors project to my lab I and got an enthusiastic response. This lab is full of really smart and critical people. I’ve seen them demolish articles that I’d thought were good and send big projects practically back to the drawing board. That’s probably not fair to them… I mean, I don’t think they would quite agree with what I just wrote, and to be honest, I can’t quite keep up with their thinking most of the time. They talk quickly and with such certainty and use a lot of lingo that after a year of hard study I’m just getting on to. Anyway, I was nervous to make that presentation and happy to find that in this area of social psychology I’m able to keep up with the thinking of these scientists. I had even anticipated most of their concerns and was able to respond well. From that place, I was able to appreciate their suggestions instead of get defensive. It’s quite an honor, really, to have that many (there are about ten people in the lab) brilliant people helping me think. Wow.

I also ran my first four participants today and it went really smoothly. All of the work I put in on the front end (lots) is paying off. As I ran them, I was able to relax and allow the process to unfold. And as I was doing that I got a lot of good thinking done. One of those thoughts was, “I haven’t posted on my blog for a while, partly because I’ve been spending so much time on this project. Maybe it’s time to write about what I’m doing here.” I’ve been putting in 60-hour weeks on school work, and about a quarter of that has been on my honors project. So, here it is:


I took a class last spring called Experimental Methods in which I was to design an implement an experiment. In my research for that project, I first came across an article by a rock star in the social psychology world,Adam Galinsky, called “Power and Perspectives Not Taken.” In a series of really creative experiments, he showed that having power over other people hurts your ability to take other people’s perspectives. That grabbed my attention because my main philosopher these days, Ken Wilber, is really into developing perspective taking, saying that it’s a super key cognitive ability. The journal articles I’ve been reading agree, too, showing that perspective taking is a major component of empathy and reduces stereotyping, for example. Then I came across an article, called “Power, Approach and Inhibition,” proposing a theory of power based on all the recent research. It painted power in a pretty bad light: Other than making you feel good, power is not a good thing to have, in terms of psychological outcomes. The more power you have, the more likely you are to stereotype, take credit for other people’s work, see others as a means to your own ends, and a bunch of other no-nos. It’s disturbing because these effects of power will tend to cause power to accumulate and keep the powerful ignorant of their faults.

This was a little disturbing personally, too, because in my community, “living powerfully” is a big deal. Don’t live a small, timid life! Live a big, impactful life! On the other hand, empathy is a big deal, too. And what good postmodernist likes stereotyping? But I also noticed that all the papers on power I was reading defined power as “having control of others’ outcomes.” In other words, the kind of power they were talking about is hierarchical power, and that’s not really the kind of power my community is into. In fact, for some of us, it’s against our religion.

Then I came across another, more obscure, article by some Dutch scientists named Van Dijke and Poppe, called “Striving for Personal Power as a Basis for Social Power Dynamics.” They had found that what people who strive for power want is not power over others, but freedom from the power of others. They call that freedom “personal power” to distinguish it from the hierarchical “social power” that has been getting all the attention in the research. When given a choice, people will act to increase their personal power instead of their social power. In fact, if they can get personal power, they will often give up social power. This is big news for any non-anarchist.

So then I did an extensive literature search for research on the psychological outcomes of having personal power, also called agency, autonomy, and a few other things. I found almost nothing, and absolutely nothing on how personal power might affect perspective taking. I was suspicious of that so I emailed MariusVan Dijke about it and he agreed: “I think the distinction is actually a new one, and I am not aware of any other research.” This is a dream for a scientist—a wide open field, and potentially an important one, too.


That’s what I’m doing this year. I’ve designed an experiment to replicate Galinsky’s (which showed that power hinders perspective taking) and adding a personal power dimension to it. If I can reproduce his results then I will be able to add some knowledge to the field. How does having personal power affect perspective taking? I have no idea. I have a hypothesis, of course, because that’s how you do science, but it’ll be exciting not matter how it turns out. If personal power is detrimental to perspective taking, like social power is, that’s pretty big news: Autonomy, bad for perspective taking! If personal power is not detrimental to perspective taking, that’s really big news: In all these struggles for power, the thing that people really want is benign! OK, I know, those are oversimplifications, but there is truth to them. And if it’s somewhere in between, if the perspective taking abilities of people with personal power fall somewhere between the tyrant’s and the slave’s, well, that’s something too. I think that’s most likely, and that’s my hypothesis: Having personal power will bring its own cost and benefit package, and for perspective taking it will be not great but not too bad.

So this term I’m running participants in my experiment, while I learn how to crunch numbers. Winter term I’ll crunch the numbers. Spring term I’ll write it all up. The best case scenario is that my results will be good enough that someone in my lab will do some follow-up experiments and publish it all in a research journal. That would be great. I’d love to be part of the conversation going on out there about human nature. I don’t think, though, that I am going to devote my life to perspective taking research, or power research, or even social psychology. Or even scientific research, though I’m closer to that than I’ve ever been. I think I’d be a good researcher—I’m thorough and smart and I love putting information into contexts and being on the cutting edge of a conversation—but so far I have no indication that I’d be brilliant. I know it’s not fair to compare myself to the others in my lab who’ve been working and studying in this field for years, but that’s what I do, and when I do think about it, so far, it seems that my best strengths lie in a more interpersonal direction. And, so far, that’s where I’m headed. But that’s another story. For now I’m happy being a scientist.

[First published as “My Honors Project, or How I am Spending My Year, Part 1,” on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, October 25, 2008.]