The Power of Empowerment

In the past week, two different published studies have shed light on the psychological relationship between biased environments and how people respond to that bias. First, a Georgia State University study on racism that was published in the journal Psychological Science. Participants in a popular diversity training program had responded positively in the short term, but white participants reported that long-term, their sense of guilt and inability to change systemic racism paralyzed them from being more active about the problems that they recognized. So researchers responded by conducting an experiment. When told their efforts would definitely make a difference, students took a greater number of pamphlets to distribute; when told their efforts might make a small difference, they took fewer. So raising awareness of a problem does not mean people will necessarily become active: in this case, the students’ actions were directly tied to how much impact they believed they could make.

Second, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study on women confronting workplace sexism. In the study, both men and women witnessed simulated workplace prejudice subtly directed toward women. Some workers chose to address the comment, while others said nothing. Among those who confronted the sexism, women experienced boosts in self-esteem and feelings of empowerment and competence. For men, the result of speaking up was neutral.

Feeling helpless to change bias and discrimination can be overwhelming: it can drive a person to depression if they’re defeated, or can cause stress and emotional anxiety if the dynamics of the problem are particularly distressing. This first study shows that we’ll stand up if we believe we can make a difference; the second shows how good that standing up can feel. Together, they make a strong case for the power and importance of empowerment, and understanding that can be integrated on many scales, from diversity training programs and workplace policies to support groups and individual counseling. One person may not be able to change systemic problems, but changing the small corner of the world that you do have control over is worth it.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Archie


    December 8th, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    This is exactly why motivation is so important. It is for the same reason that coaches of sportspersons motivate them so much.

  • julia


    December 8th, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    this not only talks about how much motivation can help people but also demonstrates the power of ‘reward-based system’ and the effect that it can have on people to actually go ahead and do something that they otherwise wouldn’t do with all the pump if there was no assurance of a reward.

  • Belle


    December 8th, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    What we need to explain to young people is that if you feel you are making a difference by your actions, you really are. Understanding the energy taking positive steps generates is what is pivotal, not how many or how few leaflets you have left. Sending out positive vibes isn’t just a catchy saying. It’s a reality.

  • LUKE


    December 9th, 2010 at 4:10 AM

    It does feel great to make a difference and to fight something that is fundamentally wrong. But not all people even try to fight against such things.

    And even if such people are forced to do so, they might not experience the same kind of elation.

    What i’m trying to say is that the feel-good factor not only depends on doing something but also the the feeling of i,really-want-to-do-this.

  • Donna


    December 9th, 2010 at 5:38 AM

    I think that especially for women the idea that you are standing up for yourself and other females in a situation like this really does make us feel good. There was a time when we had no control over issues like this and now we do, and to be able to stand up for yourself and others is somehting that really can make you feel good about yourself and the progress that all of us together have collectively made.

  • Henry


    December 9th, 2010 at 1:51 PM

    I have seen quite a lot of women being applauded when they have fought back a sexist remark or a sexist person in general…this will give courage to more and more women and will hopefully help in curbing or even stopping such behavior.

  • Myra


    December 9th, 2010 at 6:31 PM

    I agree. Do what you can when you can for the greater good because you never know when you are making an enormous difference.

  • Ellen B.

    Ellen B.

    December 9th, 2010 at 8:50 PM

    I’m incapable of listening to racist or sexist comments without expressing my disapproval. My father taught me to do what I thought was the right thing in my own mind, even if I thought it might make me unpopular in a group. He said you would never forgive yourself later for not speaking up if you didn’t. That advice has served me well all my life. Change won’t happen if we remain quiet when we’re dissatisfied with any current state of play.

  • Wanderer


    December 9th, 2010 at 10:38 PM

    Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

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