How Digital Technology Affects Our Capacity to Empathize
By Fatima Khan
The use of digital technology is developing and evolving at a rapid rate. As technological innovations continue to become faster and smaller, their ubiquity has and will continue to have an impact on human behaviour. More specifically, technology may have an impact on how people choose to empathize with each other. Consequently, practitioners of all types have to be aware of the implications of technology in their respective fields. This is especially true when considering the impact empathy has on any given user experience. Indeed, practitioners must be aware of how they use technology to alter the user experience of their clients by proxy of altering the empathic experience of their clients.
The potential impact digital technologies can have on the human ability to empathize is relevant due to the immense importance of empathy. The importance of empathy has been validated by various studies: for example, a study by Vescio, Sechrist and Paolucci (2003) revealed that empathy helps people be less susceptible to prejudices. Designing products and services with prejudice can lead to the exclusion of relevant user experiences; the consequence of such design is production of an entity that is inaccessible to parties of people who may need it. Even in more informal settings, engaging in empathy can lead to heightened inclusivity and better accommodation of people’s needs. To continue, a separate study by Steinhausen et al. (2014) discovered that when physicians exhibited empathy to trauma victims, they felt that they had received better treatment. Hence, the positive influence of empathy on the user experience of trauma victims is empirically significant and empathy can be used to improve the emotional aspects of experience. In a more general sense, empathy towards self and others can lead to better healing and experience throughout remedial experiences. The efficacy of empathy in improving user experience can be generalized to broader applications of experience: studies show that demonstrating empathy has led to better conflict resolution and lower levels of conflict escalation in adolescents (Van Lissa, Hawk, Koot, Branje, & Meeus, 2016). The use of empathy in improving conflict resolution and de-escalation is useful for practitioners in educational or rehabilitation services relating to adolescents or for parents and childcare providers.
Evidently, empathy is important in playing a cross-sectional role in the fields of user experience design, developmental psychology, customer care, healing and beyond. It is also relevant to aspects of daily life. As such, looking at the impact digital technology has on empathy is relevant to everyone. While there is some research on the direct impact of digital technology on the ability to empathize, there is still a lot that is not known. Different technologies, aspects of technology and technology’s impact on human interaction all affect empathy expression. What is not known, in most cases, is how or why they do so.
Researchers have started to contrast empathy-expression in different environments in order to look at the impact technology has in these different spheres of influence. There has been a distinction made between virtual empathy (empathy levels expressed in virtual settings) and real world empathy (empathy levels expressed in non-virtual settings). To begin, Manasia & Chicioreanu (2017) looked at the impact various internet activities had on the empathy of teachers in training. Activities included social media use, gaming, mobile use and more. The study used data from a self-administered survey to compare the time spent on the activities to levels of virtual and real world empathy. Levels of real world empathy were measured using the Basic Empathy Scale and an adapted version of the same scale was used to measure virtual empathy. Results from this study showed that virtual empathy was lower than real-world empathy, and that going online had little impact on real world empathy. In a similar study by Carrier, Spradlin, Bunce, & Rosen (2015), the Basic Empathy Scale and a different adapted Basic Empathy Scale was used to compare levels of empathy against the time spent by young adults on the internet doing various activities. Activities included online social networking, gaming, telephoning and more. In addition, the study looked at the impact that internet activity had on in-person interaction and empathy in relation to frequency of face-to-face interactions. Similar to the previous study by Manasia & Chicioreanu (2017), results for this study showed that virtual empathy is weaker than real-world empathy, and that online activities that lead to or increased face-to-face encounters positively affected real world empathy while online activities that decrease face-to-face encounters negatively affected real world empathy. Video games were found to decrease real word empathy. This study demonstrates that different types of interactions on the same platforms can have varied impacts on empathy. Evidently, digital technology is multifaceted and complex. Practitioners must consider a detailed approach to designing for empathy that does not overlook the details of the impacts of specific interactions. To continue, some of the similar results found in the studies above can be used to support the generalization of data regarding discrepancies in real and virtual empathy to larger demographics. Hence, practitioners should be aware that empathy expression is typically lower in virtual settings than it is in real life when designing experiences. The generalization of this data to larger demographics is also supported because of the tested validity of the Basic Empathy Scale (Jolliffe & Farrington, 2006). Notably, conditional requirements for whether empathy is affected by technology may also be due to methodical differences, demographic differences or different factors relating to study design. Differences may occur between the two studies because the first study did not look at the impact of usage on in person engagement while the second one did. Last, even though both studies looked at video game impact on empathy, only one study found them to decrease empathy. There is a need for replication and validation of the methodologies used in these studies.
Research regarding certain uses of technology in relation to empathy have been conducted. In a longitudinal study by Vossenand and Valkenburg (2016), social media usage was examined to determine whether it fostered or restricted empathy in adolescents. The data about the frequency of use of social media and empathy levels was collected through a survey in two sessions, each one year apart. Results found that adolescents who used social media more were more empathetic. Similarly, a study by Konrath et al. (2015) researched whether text messages could be used to increase empathetic behaviour. In this study, participants were sent text-messages 6 times a day to which they were urged to reply to. Participants were sent either empathy building texts or low empathy texts. Their levels of empathy were measured at the beginning and end of the study. Results found that empathy building messages increased empathy but decreased self perceptions of empathy. Both of these studies looked at a specific use of technology (social media and text messages) and their subsequent impact on empathy. It becomes evident, due to the differences in the results of studies listed: specific uses of technology have variable impacts on empathy. While Johnson et al. looked at social media’s passive impact on empathy, Konrath et al. actively used text messages as a tool to increase empathy in their study. This difference highlights that technology can be actively used to impact empathy levels and that technology plays a passive role on empathy levels. Passive and active changes in empathy have to do with whether the changes in empathy levels are intentional. If technology plays an active role in increasing empathy, it is being used specifically for the purpose of increasing empathy. Conversely, if technology plays a passive role in increasing empathy, the increase in empathy is not intentional and is only a byproduct of the experience. The implications of these findings are that practitioners need to be aware that empathy can be increased passively or actively based on how the user experience is set up. In terms of restrictions, this is the only study found that examines self perception of empathy. Designing for empathy should be done in a way which recognizes that different uses of technology impact empathy expression in different ways.
While specific aspects of technology in relation to empathy have been studied, specific technologies in relation to empathy have also been studied. One such technology is virtual reality. In a study by Loon, Bailenson, Zaki, Bostick, and Willer (2018), participants were randomly chosen to be exposed to one of three virtual reality experiences. For two of the experiences, participants were told that the experience modelled a day in the life of another student. The third experience was a control variable in which participants explored a virtual model of the experimental lab where the study was performed. After the immersion, participants did a follow-up survey knowing that the data from the survey would be paired up with another student’s data. Data from students embodying the same student as they were paired up with was used to measure direct empathy. Data from students embodying a different student from who they were paired up with was used to measure indirect empathy. Last, data from students who did not embody either of the two students was paired up randomly with either of the two students they did not embody and was treated as the control group. Results found that participants in the direct empathy group did show significantly more empathy than the control group after the intervention was conducted. Furthermore, for participants not in the direct empathy category, empathy only increased if they felt some immersion in virtual reality. In a similar study by Shin (2018), participants either watched a news story in virtual reality or on a flat screen television. Users watching in virtual reality had the opportunity to move around within the setting of the news story. A questionnaire was used to measure empathy, embodiment (the sense of being aware of one’s body and its movements in space), immersion into the virtual space (presence) and immersion into the user action (flow). Results found that virtual reality immersion led to higher levels of presence and flow. Presence was found to positively influence embodiment and empathy. Perceived presence was also positively correlated with embodiment. Last, embodiment and empathy positively contributed to engagement in the news story. The differences and similarities between all studies mentioned can be used to determine whether or not different technologies impact empathy expression. Due to the various similarities and differences between all studies mentioned, it is reasonable to deduce that the type of technology used has an impact on empathy expression. These studies looked at different aspects of virtual reality immersion to determine their effect on empathy. Hence, the inference that different technologies and their different aspects impact empathy expression is affirmed. While both studies looked at the different aspects of virtual reality in varying depths, they both found that empathy expression is affected to a degree by how immersed the user feels, however, only one study looked at the specific impact on direct and indirect empathy. Consequently, one study shows more variability in regards to how indirect empathy is expressed in virtual reality. In conclusion, practitioners should also consider which technologies to use when delivering empathic services or products.
In general, technology does not seem to have a negative impact on empathy expression. On the contrary, it has been shown to increase empathy expression in many cases. To continue, different technologies such as virtual reality and flat screen televisions have been shown to impact empathy in different ways. Furthermore, empathy-expression can be studied in more depth when different uses of technology, such as texting and social media, are studied. When technology usage is generally studied, it becomes unclear what aspects of usage impact empathy. In general, virtual empathy is weaker than real life empathy. Active and passive empathy have also been studied with passive empathy generally being exhibited less. However, active and passive empathy need to be studied in more contexts in order to get a broader view of how they are impacted. To continue, most studies had a relatively young sample group, hence, studies with larger demographics must be done. Self perception of empathy also needs to be studied in more contexts with wider demographics. There are several new research questions that can be explored: how do different technologies effect empathy expression; why do different technologies effect empathy expression differently; how prevalent is active, passive, direct and indirect empathy with all affecting technology; how do different technologies affect self perception of empathy; and how are different demographics’ empathy levels and self perception of empathy affected by empathy? Evidently, more research needs to be done regarding this topic, as there are many gaps. To conclude, while there is a lot of uncertainty around this topic, there are many takeaways design practitioners can draw upon when choosing to take an empathy-centered design route. Indeed, an empathy-centered approach to design practice can help significantly improve the outcome of a user’s experience.
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