UTFacultiesBMSEventsPhD Defence Marian van Dijk | Feeling Powerless and Finding Support: Dynamics of Power Perceptions and Empowering Interventions in Legal Conflicts

PhD Defence Marian van Dijk | Feeling Powerless and Finding Support: Dynamics of Power Perceptions and Empowering Interventions in Legal Conflicts

Feeling Powerless and Finding Support: Dynamics of Power Perceptions and Empowering Interventions in Legal Conflicts

The PhD defence of Marian van Dijk will take place in the Waaier building of the University of Twente and can be followed by a live stream.
Live Stream

Marian van Dijk is a PhD student in the department Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety. (Co)Promotors are prof.dr. E. Giebels and dr. S. Zebel from the faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences.

Conflicts about consumer purchases, divorce, employment contracts, and government benefits are not only legal issues, but psychological (life) events. In this dissertation, I examine the perception of power of individuals in legal conflicts; specifically the perception of facing a more powerful other in conflict. In a cross-sectional study among visitors of the Dutch Legal Aid Desks (N = 700, study 1, chapter 2), a simulated consumer conflict in an experimental study (N = 175, study 2, chapter 3), and a longitudinal field study following individuals through divorce (N = 312, study 3, chapter 4), my co-authors and I looked at the development and consequences of perceptions of power and powerlessness, and the potential of interventions to remedy those.

In study 1 (chapter 2), we hypothesized that power asymmetry (being more dependent on the other party than vice-versa) would predict a need for problem-focused help. We distinguish power asymmetry from conflict asymmetry (experiencing more conflict than the other side), which we expected to increase the need for emotion-focused help. Results among clients of the Dutch legal aid desks who had experienced one or more legal conflicts, showed that power asymmetry was indeed a strong and positive predictor of problem-focused empowerment needs, whereas both power asymmetry and conflict asymmetry positively and significantly predicted the need for emotion-focused help, particularly in the absence of wider social support.

In the experiment in study 2 (chapter 3), we tested the impact of different online interventions on consumer empowerment in a realistic online conflict. Consumer power was manipulated by offering or withholding the opportunity to leave a review of the seller, and consumers were randomly assigned to one of four interventions based on either legal or psychological help. We hypothesized that consumers would be more empowered when they had the opportunity to leave a review, especially when they had received an intervention that reinforced their confidence. We expected legal advice, invoking the power of the legal system, to be more beneficial when consumers did not have the option to leave a review. We developed an online mock market-place paradigm in which participants experienced problems during a purchase. We tested for effects on three indicators of empowerment: assertive claiming behavior, the perceived power division, and self-efficacy assessments. We found effects in line with expectations on power perceptions, but found no effects on claiming behavior and self-efficacy. It may be that the stakes were not high enough or the interventions not strong enough. The latter would be important, because we closely mirrored the interventions as consumers may receive them in practice.

In study 3 (chapter 4), we examined the relationship between perceived differences in power in individuals going through divorce and their subsequently reported emotions, appraisals of agreements, and third-party involvement in divorce settlement. Our main expectation was that an initially perceived disadvantage in power would influence subsequent stages of the divorce process, even when the perceived disadvantage reduces over time. Furthermore, we expected an empowering effect of an educational web-based intervention that can reach people early in the divorce process. Employing a quasi-experimental pretest-posttest design, the sample included Dutch adults who visited (n = 260) or did not visit (n = 52) a web-based intervention and were assessed at 3 points in time. As expected, and despite a decrease in perceptions of power asymmetry over time, we observed enduring detrimental effects of an early power disadvantage in terms of higher emotional costs, more dissatisfaction with the process and content of the agreements, and more third-party involvement. Interestingly, those who reported power asymmetry (both as disadvantage ánd advantage) also reported more lawyer and less mediator involvement. Also as expected, in this sample, those who reported a power disadvantage and used the web-based intervention, reported higher power at a later stage than those who did not use the web intervention.

The three studies in this dissertation show the importance of early identification of negative power perceptions, especially in high stakes conflicts such as divorce, where we saw that negative outcomes linked to initial negative power perceptions persisted, even when the initial perceived powerlessness was resolved. These studies also show the importance of tailoring interventions to diverging needs of those who perceive themselves as powerless or powerful. Finally, we saw that minimal online interventions can reach individuals very early in their conflicts, before they have started negotiations with the other party or have contacted third parties. The studies in this dissertation showed the limitations as well as the potential of such interventions to empower those who need it most.