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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Empowerment and Mental Functions - Cognitive Disenhancement

Here's an interesting article from Economist.com. 

As you know we've been mulling over Bob Lupton's "Betterment vs. Empowerment" concepts as we approach our mission to relieve poverty. Lupton suggests that empowerment is a dignity building activity where betterment (giving without accountability) can create dependence and reliance on the giver thereby robbing dignity. It's important to note the Lupton distinguishes between crisis (i.e. Katrina, the earthquake in China) needs and chronic needs that seem to always be present. 

The Economist recently reported the following:
New drugs may help to enhance people's mental powers. But a study carried out by Pamela Smith, of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and her colleagues suggests a less pharmacological approach can be taken, too. Their work, just published in Psychological Science, argues that simply putting someone into a weak social position impairs his cognitive function. Conversely, “empowering” him, in the dread jargon of sociology, sharpens up his mind.

Dr Smith focused on those cognitive processes that help people maintain and pursue their goals in difficult and distracting situations. She suspected that a lack of social power may reduce someone's ability to keep track of information and make plans to achieve his goals.
To explore this theory, she carried out three tests on memory, concentration and planning.
In the first, participants were divided at random into groups of superiors and subordinates. They were told that the superiors would direct and evaluate the subordinates and that this evaluation would determine the subordinates' payment for the experiment. Superiors were paid a fixed amount. The subordinates were then divided into two further groups: powerless and empowered. A sense of powerlessness was instilled, the researchers hoped, by having participants write for several minutes about a time when they were powerless or by asking them to unscramble sets of words including “obey”, “subordinate” and so on to form sentences. The empowered, by contrast, were asked to write about when they had been on top, or to form sentences including “authority”, “dominate” and similar words.

In all three tests Dr Smith found that low-power participants made 2-5% more errors than their high-power counterparts. She argues that these results were not caused by the low-power volunteers being less motivated, as they had the same financial incentive as the high-power volunteers to do well. Instead, she suspects that those lacking in power suffered adverse cognitive effects from that very lack, and thus had difficulty maintaining their focus on the tasks. (emphasis mine)

If what the data is suggesting is true, and if empowerment activities promote better self esteem, cognitive functions and well being, then should we engage in those activities over ones that create dependence and reliance? 

In some cases it's simply easier to give and not look at longer-term engagement with those we're trying to serve. This is especially true in the high powered Silicon Valley where return on investment and a focus on the 'new and innovative idea' prevails. Or at times our actions are tainted by patronage, where we give because it makes us feel good, not thinking about the implications on the poor. 

The welfare state created in the 1960's is a fine example of the failure of dignity robbing activities. We certainly are called to serve and love the 'least of these' - but, as Lupton would suggest our first task is to, "do no harm", whether long term or short. 

I'm not at all suggesting we should limit or restrict our giving. On the contrary, as Ron Sider's book is aptly titled we are, "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" we should give more and more. As believers in Christ we have that Biblical mandate.  I am however suggesting we think before we give, and do so in a way that is generous, life affirming and dignity building toward those we are serving. 

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