For this piece, we interviewed Sherry Jueyu Wu. We also spoke with Charlotte Treby M. Williams (Executive Vice President of Princeton University) and Leslie J. Rowley (Associate Director, Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy), representatives from Princeton University, which was one of the workplaces that implemented the intervention evaluated in the study. Below, you will find questions and answers from the research team followed by those from the Princeton administration.
In your study, you randomly altered the dynamics of weekly staff meetings at two different workplaces (a Chinese factory and Princeton University in the US), transforming the meetings into participatory events where staff were encouraged to talk and supervisors mandated to listen. What was the motivation behind this intervention?
Sherry Jueyu Wu: I have been long fascinated by the idea of how being a part of your group and actively participating in your group could make the group an even more powerful motivator. From social psychology, we have learned that groups lay the foundations for our perceptions and actions—in particular, that an attempt to change a person’s behavior will fail in the long run if it does not involve their group. The experiments were motivated by two streams of thoughts. For one, we are motivated by theories of participatory democracy and the idea that workplaces that invite participation can empower workers—decreasing blind trust in authority and justice and motivating civic and political participation. For two, we are motivated by Kurt Lewin’s theorizing in the field of group dynamics. We speculate that face-to-face interacting groups can create their own immersive reality that might contrast with the societal norm.
In order to test the causal impact of a participatory group structure and the impact of voice in particular, we set out to design a study in which we could increase people’s participatory life in a small way on a regular basis. As far as we know, our experiments are the first to test whether participatory group structure can causally impact beliefs toward societal authority and justice in and outside of experimental psychology.
Why did you choose those two particular work settings?
SJW: Since we are studying groups, we asked the pragmatic question: where can we recruit the largest number of groups that we can experiment with? I thought about companies and then Chinese factories, where workers are organized in groups and work together as teams. I gained access into one of the largest textile manufacturing companies through a mutual contact and started the long process of persuasion and negotiation with the company’s management. After two years of continuous ethnographic work and experimental pilots in the factories (including a nudge intervention that was later published, see Wu & Paluck, 2021), we established enough credibility and trust with the factory’s management, who eventually gave us a nod to the group intervention with their sewing workers.
We found substantial main effects in this context. The majority of our participants are on the lower totem pole as young and female migrant workers in the society, where participation practices are not a normative default. My next question was: does a participatory group structure work in a context where participatory practices are more common in people’s daily life?
We tried to find a context and a population as different as possible to our first Chinese factory experiment for a conceptual replication of the main findings. By that time (Spring 2017), Princeton University (where Elizabeth Levy Paluck is a professor and Sherry Jueyu Wu used to be a PhD student) had introduced a new Campus Behavioral Science Initiative (CBSI) to bring together researchers and campus administrators interested in using behavioral science for problem-solving on the campus. We presented our first field experiment to the central campus and gained support to conduct our second field experiment with the academic administrative staff groups, which are naturally existing groups in a completely different context to our earlier experiment. The rationale is if we were able to find similar results across these two drastically different contexts, it might suggest the power of participatory groups is potentially universal.
What was the impact of changing the structure of the weekly meetings on workers’ attitudes and how did you go about measuring these outcome variables?
SJW: We found that a regular opportunity to voice out one’s opinion in your work group shifted group members’ long-held attitudes toward generalized authority and justice with both Chinese factory workers and university administrative staff. The size of the difference is about 1 standard deviation on the survey measurement scale, and is even more interesting as the attitudes were measured 4 weeks after the end of the intervention . At the same time, factory workers reported higher engagement in decision making outside of the workplace, in their political and social life.
In addition, we report in a separate paper (Wu & Paluck, forthcoming) that treatment factory workers became more productive compared with workers in the control groups. Specifically, we found that participatory vs. hierarchical structure led to a 10.6% average increase in individual treatment workers’ productivity, an increase that endured for 9 weeks after the participatory experiment ended. For behavioral measures, we obtained daily production data from the factory management, as the factory uses technology that counts each worker’s finished pieces by machine in real time, providing objective, precise, and accurate measures of worker production.
Regarding attitudinal measures, we measured people’s generalized attitudes toward authority using items adapted from the F-scale (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford, 1950) and Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale (Altemeyer, 2008), which are commonly used in psychology to measure an “authoritarian personality” (e.g., “Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn”). We measured people’s generalized attitudes toward social justice using the Belief in a Just World (BJW) scale (e.g., “By and large, people deserve what they get”). Both authoritarianism and belief in a just world have been conceptualized as stable traits that are hard to shift by situational influences in social and personality psychology. We also measured people’s participation behavior outside of work (in politics, e.g., “How often do you follow news about politics?”; in family and social life, e.g., “How often have you participated in your family’s decision-making lately?”).
What, if any, differences were observed between the two intervention sites?
SJW: Design-wise, the two field experiments followed the same protocol, except that in the factory experiment, the participatory meetings were led by research assistants and in the administrative staff groups, the meetings were led directly by academic managers.
Regarding the treatment effects on attitudes toward generalized authority and justice, the point estimates are very similar, despite the fact that the estimates were noisier with the administrative staff groups due to the smaller sample size compared with the factory work groups. Treatment workers in both contexts reported significantly lower authoritarianism, and lower beliefs in the just nature of the world. Chinese factory workers also reported more participation behavior outside of work (we did not measure participation behavior outside of work in the US replication due to survey length constraint).
China can be seen as an interesting boundary case for the test of participatory groups. On one hand, participation might not work well because participatory practices are not as welcoming in the factory and in the society at large. On the other hand, participation might work particularly well because Chinese factory workers are not typically offered opportunities to participate, so a small dose might have a larger effect than in other contexts where participation is more common.
What are the policy implications of these results?
SJW: Because the participatory meeting intervention represents a brief immersive experience with participatory structure and not an overhaul of the workplace environment, the intervention presents a highly scalable solution to increase workers’ representation of voice as well as behavioral and attitudinal change. Our research suggests that a temporary change in experience in individuals’ work-life can have a modest but weeks-long enduring impact, on social views considered so stable that they are often described as personality traits.
Another implication is on the theories of participatory democracy. Workplaces are a training ground for civic attitudes and engagement. By cultivating a more participatory group at the local workplace, we are also influencing people’s outlooks on the social hierarchies within society.
What was the motivation behind Princeton University’s collaboration with the researchers on this project?
Charlotte Treby M. Williams and Leslie J. Rowley: In Spring 2017, the Office of the Executive Vice President (OEVP) and the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy (CBP) introduced a new Campus Behavioral Science Initiative (CBSI) to bring together researchers and administrators who are interested in researching and addressing significant problems on Princeton’s campus through the lens of behavioral science and policy. The CBSI strives to engage a variety of campus researchers and administrators to create a mutually advantageous environment in which academic researchers can have access to local data and administrators can benefit from research results and insights to inform University activities. The project that Sherry and Betsy proposed was a great example of one that could ultimately fulfill this aim for mutual advantages.
How has your participation in this study affected decisions about the structure of your weekly meetings?
CTW & LR: The administrative teams within Princeton’s academic units handle demanding portfolios in support of the core academic work of the institution. Any improvements in team morale, productivity, and effectiveness are beneficial to both our mission and our sense of community well-being.
The structured process laid out by Sherry and Betsy’s team provided the unit managers with a framework that they might not have undertaken otherwise. While use of the framework was not mandated as a result of the study’s findings, after learning that the structured interactions improved team success, managers in all units—even those who did not participate in the study—now know they have an effective tool at their disposal.