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Empathy and Technology: Shaping Our Connection in the Future

Empathy and Technology: Shaping Our Connection in the Future

Jennifer Murtell

phone with heart on screen

How marketers can ethically chart an empathic course toward better understanding consumers’ needs through the use of technology

Empathy has been a hot-button topic over the past 10 years, the same span of time in which social media has grown into its current state of all-encompassing influence. But understanding how empathy intersects with technology, specifically in the social media sphere, is complex, polarizing and largely uncharted.

Emotion researchers define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. “Cognitive empathy” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. The biology of empathy is a controversial topic, with some claiming it is a hardwired biological imperative, and others claiming it is overvalued as a human characteristic and will inevitably evolve as we do in our relationship with tech.

The Pros and Cons of Empathy

According to Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, most of us are wrong about empathy. In his book “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” Bloom leverages clinical studies and simple logic to posit that empathy, however well-intentioned, is a poor tool for moral reasoning. As we move from individual suffering to the suffering of large groups of people, we seem to “lose” our empathy. Consider the famous quote by Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

Bloom writes, “I want to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life, arguing that we should strive to use our heads rather than our hearts. Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight. It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased.”


Technology and Empathy

What is the impact of the ubiquitousness of technology on our ability to empathize? And how does our human experience of empathy influence the way we use technology? In his book “Irresistible,” Adam Alter of NYU’s Stern School of Business suggests that technology is having a direct and negative impact on our ability to connect to each other. His hypothesis is that virtual “connectivity” is disconnecting us from human interaction, and the consequences are hard to swallow, especially in social outcomes for children.

Alter highlights research from 2012 by child psychologist Yalda T. Uhls. She wanted to determine the impact that devices and social media were having on children by taking a group of kids on a week-long nature retreat, completely free of technology. In order to help measure the impact that unplugged time had on the children, they were given two empathy tests, one pre-retreat and a second post-retreat. This test, called DANVA2, uses facial expression and tone of voice to gauge a person’s emotional states. After only one week without technology, the children scored 33% higher on the DANVA2 test, demonstrating the apparent impact devices have on a child’s empathy and their ability to foster emotional connections. No parallel test was done with adults.

Feminism and Self-Worth

Precisely when the sense of personhood is forming, girls are drawn into the world of quantification and codification of their experience, feeling and agendas. Privacy for acceptance is the initial trade they are asked to make, which commodifies their identity for marketers.

Computer scientist Tristan Harris in the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” concedes that perhaps our biology is not able to keep up with the onslaught of public opinion and scrutiny. “These technology products were not designed by child psychologists who are trying to protect and nurture children … social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over a kids’ sense of self-worth and identity. We evolved to care about whether other people in our tribe think well of us or not, ‘cause it matters.’ But were we evolved to be aware of what 10,000 people think of us? We were not evolved to have social approval being dosed to us every five minutes. That is not at all what we were built to experience.”

Once this trade is made, the exploration of the options and benefits technology and media provide are empowering and vast. They can bring old friends together, provide a platform to marginalized voices and bring people into the political sphere who would otherwise not have access. But these tools are also exposing developing identities to the full spectrum of adult expectation, of intellectual resilience, manipulation, rhetoric and cynicism from which they may not recover.

In fact, U.S. hospital admissions for self-harm in teenage girls skyrocketed after 2010, up 62% in girls ages 15-19, and up a staggering 189% in girls ages 10-14. Suicide rates have also skyrocketed since 2010, up 70% in 15-19-year old’s, and 151% in 10-14-year-old girls.

Do the metrics of likes, hearts and thumbs-ups replace the social benefits of face-to-face relationships, conflict resolution, affinity-building and shared real-time experiences? Does it change or ability to empathize with others? Does it change the value we place on empathy itself as a human virtue?

The Question of Product

How is this social media problem manifesting for marketers and brand builders? The ethical concern lies in the question of what the product is and who the audience is. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, it is clear that the advertiser (in whatever form) is the customer, and our attention and personal data are the product. Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer, puts a finer point on it: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” The technology ethics activist suggests that instigating a 1% shift in our behavior can make an advertiser huge money.

Leveraging these platforms, which can be questionable in their benefit to consumers without furthering the reward paradigm, is nearly impossible for a brand—consequently, to feel a sense of responsibility to young people in the social media sphere can be a catch-22. The ease of access to the instruments of social media leaves a space open for a more tailored, resonant and insightful brand experience, but how do we create something more meaningful?

Computer science professor Cal Newport in his now-famous and prescient NYT article, “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It,” articulated this value equation perfectly. “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.”

Ethical Concerns

This is a marketplace that has never existed before, an economy built on trading in “human futures.” Tech companies may know what we will do tomorrow better than we do, the challenge is that they can’t imagine a growth trajectory where we aren’t touching a device. Their algorithms are making better and better predictions. But they can’t respond to, or empathize with, how we feel. They are designed to create bubbles—echo chambers—where our world view repeatedly goes unquestioned and reinforced.

This reality, in all its complexity, will continue to drive provocative discussion. Marketers would be wise to educate themselves on the neurological, sociocultural and political ramifications of technology and social media, and to remember our consumer and what she faces in a world that still seeks to tear her down.

Image by amrothman from Pixabay.

As vice president of strategy, Asia Pacific, at Marks, part of SGS & Co, Jennifer Murtell leverages design thinking to solve business challenges, develops brand portfolio architecture, whitespace models and positioning for a variety of leading consumer packaged goods brands.