Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Science and dealing with dictators

For my study I had to read some scientific publication (Less Power or Powerless? Egocentric Empathy Gapsand the Irony of Having Little versus No Power in Social Decision Making.) that has some interesting implications for how to deal with dictators.

It is a well known fact that when people get more power they use or abuse it. But this does not go on endlessly. When they get absolute power they become more generous. I quote one experiment from this article. I have changed it a bit to make it comprehensible without the context:
Participants were read a scenario in which they were asked to imagine themselves as being one of two competing owners of adjacent cafe´s. Both want to use the sidewalk in front of their cafe´s for an outdoor bar. Participants were told that the city council endowed them with 100 m2 that they could use together. As they were the ones that first contacted the city council about this extension of their cafe´, the participants are instructed by the city council to come up with a division of the 100 m2. Allocators could therefore propose a division of the 100 m2 to
their neighbors. In the condition in which the participants were confronted with a powerless neighbor, they were told that they could make any division and that the neighbor is going to have to accept this proposal—the 100 m2 will be divided as they propose.
It is important to note that this is equivalent full power. In the other condition, participants were confronted with a neighbor with a small amount of power. They were told that the neighbor has information that could lead to a decrease of the total space that could be used for the outdoor cafe´. The neighbor has a choice between either accepting the proposal that the participants make or informing the city council that the 100 m2 are too close to the street and that according to the law, 10 m2 would have to remain unused.
This would mean that although the relative sizes of the parts for each cafe´ owner would remain as proposed, the total area to be divided would be reduced by 10%. It is important to note that this situation is equivalent to 90% power. The scenario was accompanied by a map that gave an overview of the layout of the two cafe´s, the area to be divided, and, in the 90% power condition, the area that was too close to the street.
After reading this scenario, participants were asked to indicate what percentage of the total 100 m2 they would allocate to their neighbors.

The result was that the people with 100% power were prepared to give 41.9 square meters compared to 34.35 for the 90% power people. There are numerous experiments with similar results. It appears that when people have all the power they feel responsible: "Noblesse oblige".

Interestingly people don't expect this. When in an experiment people are put in the powerless position and given a little piece of information that they can use against the powerful side nearly everyone discloses this to the other side - seriously harming their receipts.

In this context it is nice to looks at the studies that show that nonviolent protest has the best results. Many people see nonviolence only as a trick: if you can't beat the government with arms it is better not to use them so that when the government uses them people will see it as excessive violence and the government will loose support.

The result is the kind of doomed insurrections as we have seen in Iran, Libya and Syria. Everyone - including the government - knew that the ultimate goal was the fall of the government and the government took accordingly measures to quash the protests. Compare that to Tunisia and Egypt where there were concrete demands like less corruption and the abolishment of the state of emergency. These were moral demands that not directly attacked the government and even when in the end the dictator left much of the established order - including the army - stayed behind.

An important factor behind this illfated strategy is that the CIA is pushing the opposition in those countries in that direction.

If we look to dictatorships that have become democracies it seldom happened at once in a revolution. Usually it happened in small steps that seemed logical at the time. This is how the moral appeals at the "noblesse oblige" of dictators works. With demands for regime change the protesters move themselves to more power. But just as in the experiments that makes the dictator less likely to grant more freedom.

It looks to me that in their present mode the uprising in most Arab countries are doomed to fail. The country were there is best chance for regime change is Syria but that is for the wrong reasons. The Syrian regime has chosen the strategy of massive reaction. As any guerrilla handbook may tell you this is bound to antagonize the population against the regime. It is standard guerrilla tactic to shoot a few cops in order to achieve such a reaction. But even if this strategy of provocation succeeds the humanitarian price may be very high.

No comments: