Plug-In Empathy Killers?

By Tracey Barnett © August 2011

They call it the “Love Lab.” After only one hour of observing couples talking on videotape, University of Washington researcher John Gottman has acquired an astounding ability. He can predict whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. Here’s the kicker; he can do it with 95 percent accuracy. Gottman’s ability to track a couple’s verbal and non-verbal cues is so practiced, even if he observes them for 15 minutes, his record only drops to 90 percent accuracy.

That means in a matter of minutes, a complete stranger can decode our most complicated, intimate relationship with an accuracy that could shred pre-nups into confetti. Imagine how terrified friends are to invite this guy to dinner.

The truth is, most of us aren’t too far below John Gottman’s league, with seriously astute face-to-face antenna. Within mere minutes of meeting—some researchers argue seconds—we can quite accurately assess a new colleague or decide to trust a stranger.

Psychologists call it “thin-slicing”, our unconscious ability to read cues and define patterns to make sophisticated, accurate snap judgments. We listen for inflections in their speech, de-code the smallest nuances in facial expressions. Since infancy, this is our most primal cultural currency.

But what would happen if face-to-face interactions became secondary to electronic ones? What if most of our interactions were shrouded in a kind of society-wide burqa—as if we voluntarily severed our ability to read facial expressions, body language, even tone of voice? How different would society look if you took away our most primal power to read people in person?

Look around you, we’re partly there now. Today age 8-18 year-olds spend an astounding 7 hours, 38 minutes a day tethered to electronic media, according to a US study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s 53 hours a week, almost half their waking hours. More than most adults spend at full time jobs.

They’re not alone. How much of your professional and personal relationships are now partly—sometimes completely—conducted without being physically in the same space as the person you’re talking—um, typing to?

This isn’t just about emailing your colleague in the next room instead of getting up to go speak with him. This sea change away from face-to-face contact is permeating every sphere of our lives.

We’re not just severing being together; we’re not actually talking either. Over 30 percent of teens send more than 100 texts a day, with two-thirds more likely to text their friends than call, according to a Pew Research poll.

Teen romances may begin in person, but often now bloom, then expire, in mute torrent bits of direct messaging. There is a whole new generation behind us that doesn’t see anything strange about this.

“One of the most pronounced changes in the daily habits of British citizens is a reduction in the number of minutes per day that they interact with another human being,” Dr. Aric Sigman, who has written on the biological implications of social networking, told the BBC.

At the same time social media is expanding who we know, it is making those connections significantly more shallow—and ultimately, less intimate. We’re widening our social network in unprecedented numbers, but at a huge price. We’re killing deeper relationships.

Overall, Americans reported one-third fewer friends and confidants than they did two decades ago. A Duke University study in the US found that people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled, to 25 percent.

“Social networking sites should allow us to embellish our social lives, but what we find is very different. The tail is wagging the dog. These are not tools that enhance, they are tools that displace,” according to Dr. Sigman.

The consequences of replacing real face-time with cyber interactions may be just beginning to appear.

Almost 75 percent of students polled by University of Michigan rated themselves less empathetic than polling taken 30 years ago. More troubling is that the steepest drop-off was in empathetic concern, the ability to exhibit an emotional response to someone else’s distress.

Statistics only took a nose dive in the last ten years, the same time when students who were born in the 80’s, raised in the first flowering of the internet in the 90’s and matured in the new century of laptops and cell phones became the first true generation of digital natives.

We’re inside this weird dichotomy; today you can reach out to more people further than we ever imagined, yet personally you are less connected to the person sitting right next to you—because you have your ear buds in and are checking your text messages at the same time.

Technology may have connected this generation more widely than any time in history—while simultaneously isolating us from each other in the same room.

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