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A man holds a sign, containing a question mark, in front of his face.

Unmasking our true selves

Innovative research reveals identity and power issues in communication

Feb. 5, 2007

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us /To see oursels as ithers see us!"--Robert Burns

It's taken a couple of centuries, but poet Robert Burns' famous wish has come true. Using digital technology, University researcher Cryss Brunner has created a way for students to see themselves through the eyes of others. Many who try it find that they may not be quite as fair or unbiased as they had thought.

Ultimately, Brunner, an associate professor of educational policy and administration, wants to know if our identity (gender, race, physical characteristics, experiences) gets in the way of interpersonal understanding, true dialogue and "justice-oriented" interaction.

"Identity shapes both [what we say and what we think we say] in ways that [promote inequality]," Brunner explains. "Identity and the power associated with it can drown out alternative voices or marginalize all but mainstream authority." Often, leaders who practice this kind of autocratic interaction are unaware of imposing their power on others, she says.

Brunner has spent the last decade studying female leaders and power within school administrations. In 2002 she and colleagues from the University's Digital Media Center created Experiential Simulations (ES), an online environment similar to a chat room where people's true identities are masked to others in the group.

Each person is given a "modified persona"--an assigned gender, racial, class and positional identity unlike their own. They are instructed not to reveal personal details to one another. When they log in, each sees his or her own image, while their classmates see images and video that represent the assigned persona. The students are unaware of this, however, and assume that the others are seeing them as they actually are.

"Consider what the United Nations might be able to accomplish if [delegates] were stripped of the power associated with the countries they represent," says Brunner.

In this context, students work together in situations designed to show how their perception of other people shapes their own decisions. Offline, the students answer questions concerning their assumptions about power and stereotypes, their communication and their decision-making practices.

Afterward, they compare their profiles of themselves to cumulative data sets collected since 2002 that expose to them their skills in communication, leadership and collaboration, as well as their biases and how they use power. The ES experience brings to the fore what is usually in the background of real-world interaction: who each student is in relation to their membership in privileged or marginalized groups, the assumptions about those groups and the characteristics that bias their interactions.

What the research shows

The reactions from students in the project have been visceral and profound. One woman who thought that people didn't listen to her because she is African American realized that her own communication approach was preventing her from being heard. Several participants were startled to learn that their behavior was often bigoted. Others who thought they were inclusive discovered they were bullies. Several continue to report that they draw on the ES experience every day as they interact with others.

For another group of students, the exercise was a great equalizer. Speakers of languages other than English reported that they had never before been able to participate in class discussions in such a meaningful way, an experience that was echoed by students who categorize themselves as shy and by those with physical disabilities.

The Experiential Simulations process has been patented and copyrighted. Brunner and her colleagues are in the process of refining the ES model as software that can be used as a leadership development tool.

Michael Miller, assistant professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, sees promise for Brunner's work in fostering interpersonal understanding. "One powerful use might be an Experiential Simulation in which you modify the personas of inner-city students to become stereotypically suburban students and give suburban students stereotypically inner-city identities and have them collaborate on a task," Miller says. "This would provide students a powerful look at how [what] they think differs from how they act and an opening for meaningful discussions about perceptions of the 'other.'

"In the past few years, social networking via online vehicles such as MySpace and Friendster have illustrated very real components of social influence generally, and power and identity specifically," Miller continues. "Brunner's work ... may prove to have farther reaching implications given the way human communication continues to so rapidly morph."

Adds Christen Opsal, a graduate student in educational policy and administration: "Of the many possible applications, I see value in using Experiential Simulations during a hiring process, as a way to identify candidates who are truly competent and collaborative, and also as a way to reduce bias in selection processes."

The technology could have application in any situation where people work together in groups--in schools, communities, businesses and government.

"Consider what the United Nations might be able to accomplish if [delegates] were stripped of the power associated with the countries they represent," says Brunner. "Would the world be a more just place if decisions were made from such a level playing field?"

Adapted from ResearchWorks, January 2007, a publication by the College of Education and Human Development.