Last week, Arizona State University announced that the National Science Foundation awarded $449,000 to a collection of scholars at the university to study empathy's effects on water usage decisions. The grant was awarded to ASU scholars in 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, with Erik Johnston – Network member and director of ASU's Center for Policy Informatics – acting as the principal investigator.

The three-year study will focus on "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 study is built around a gamified platform that asks participants to make difficult water allocation decisions and consider the tradeoffs those decisions require. "The game poses various scenarios for water usage, considering effects on variables such as jobs, sustainability, food scarcity and quality of life."

During the early days of the study, Johnston has noted unexpected outcomes as participants are asked to empathetically and collaboratively make tough choices with (simulated) effects on the public good:

“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. 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.”

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