Is Digital Technology Strengthening Or Eroding Our Social Fabric? | Dr. Sara Konrath
Good morning, everybody. It's wonderful to connect to you virtually, and virtual connections are going to be part of the theme for today or the theme for the day for those of you who I haven't gotten and to work with. My name is John Bare, and I'm now four months into my tenure at Templeton Foundation.
So each one of these chances to connect with you virtually or in person is special. And today's particularly special because I get to introduce a Speaker, Dr. Sara Konrath. When I joined Templeton Foundation last fall, the speaker series emerged as a wonderful highlight for me. I learned a lot both about our work and our partners work and met lots of great people through the virtual connection.
And so I'm excited to be part of this program today. Dr. Sara Konrath is Director of the Interdisciplinary Program for Empathy and Altruism Research. An associate professor at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, she's trained as a social psychologist and is an expert in the science of empathy and social relationships.
She also has extensive experience in designing empathy building tools, including virtual tools. So the way I imagine it in our kind of internal language is Dr. Konrath has expertise in research and public engagement and in bridging the two.
So it's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Sara Konrath. Thank you so much. And I want to also thank the John Templeton Foundation, because when I reflect on my career, ever since the beginning of my career, even as an undergrad, there has been an influence there from some of the topics I was studying. And my very first research grant was from the John Templeton Foundation. And it's helped me to do the research that I really believe in.
So I just want to thank all of you for the work you do. And I'm excited to talk about virtual empathy. And I put that as a question mark reason, because I think we do question whether it's possible to use a digital technology to make us kinder. And that's the topic of today's talk. So I'm just going to start with some things that are probably obvious what happened to technology during the pandemic.
But first, just a question for you. How many of you have used digital communication technologies more since the beginning of the pandemic? And you can do like a little hand raising hand thing. I can see you here. You can just put in the chat box. I can see that as well.
Yes. Good Lord. Yes. Lots of thumbs up, clapping. So, yeah, it seems like a silly question. It's not everyone, though, but the research is showing that a big change. So here are some stats — in a PEW research survey in 2021 90% of Americans said the Internet was important or essential to them during this pandemic. I wonder about the other 10%.
Here's something new too 81% made video calls. A lot of people hadn't really used video call technology before the pandemic. 40% also said they used digital technology in a new way than before. According to Statistica, American social media usage grew from 54 minutes each day on average in 2019 to 65 minutes in 2020, which is a 20% increase.
And although all major social media platforms grew during the Pandemic, TikTok saw the most growth during the Pandemic, with a 38% increase globally and in the US, a whopping 85% increase. I think I am behind the times here because I don't really I don't know. I guess I need to explore this new media because I haven't used it. Now phone calls. You might think of them as traditional technologies, but a lot of them are now digital.
So AT&T in the early Pandemic found that there was a 44% increase in their cellular calls and an 88% increase in WiFi. I am curious and maybe a little too nerdy or have too much time on my hands during the Pandemic, but I actually looked up my own phone data for this presentation and I found that the time that I spent on the phone in the first two months of the Pandemic increased 76% compared to the two months before. So I guess the data suit me. And if you're curious about landline use, yes, they also measured that and it went up 74%. Finally, dating app uses exploded over this time period. 28% of Americans live alone, which is a historically high number and many of them are single.
But for them, the only way that they could connect with new people was through these apps. As an example, Tinder has the highest activity on a single day ever on March 29, 2020 with 3 billion swipes. Just think about that and what that means for who was using this app and OK Cupid, saw a 700% increase in connections on their app in the early year of the pandemic.
As long as digital technologies like social media and smartphones have existed, people have warned that they would impair our relationships and erode our empathy. I think that discourse on this topic is pretty negative and maybe for good reason. So does anyone have any examples of low empathy digital technology usage? You can just write it in the chat if you like or you can shout it out. Pardon me? Any examples of how you have seen or heard people using digital tech in a way that is not empathetic or is mean? I'm not seeing any anyone jump in, but now I do. Okay, great.
So Facebook targeting young women experiencing eating disorders and that's an example of a technology company acting that. Dunking on Twitter. Any other examples that you've seen? Hate sharing on social media. That's a great example.
I often think about bullying electronically. Unnecessarily negative YouTube comments or Reddit comments are just basically leaving messages that are rude without considering other people's feelings. Of course we can all think of these even if you didn't mention them. We often think about them and talk about them and see them. We're often quick to blame new media for a lot that's wrong in the world.
Often I've noticed we do this through, like, social media, which is funny, that we're experiencing now is not new and has accompanied all new media that have been introduced historically. Media historians point to increasing media panic, especially during times of social change or economic change, which is definitely what we're seeing in our society. So we're going to play a little game here from these media historians.
And it's called "Guess the New Media". When this media came out, it was described as the cause of negligence and folly, something that only vulgar people enjoy, a poison, a national evil and the reflection of our weakness. Can anyone guess what this media was? Rock & Roll! It sounds good.
It's not rock and roll, it's not radio. Think earlier. Not television.
And yes. Oh, Telegraph, that's a good one. Photography. It's not any of those. It's not telephone, but you're getting warmer.
So I'm going to just show you now, this is what was said about the new habit of reading novels in the 18th century, a habit we now beg and wish that our children would develop. This is just kind of an example. It wasn't a digital technology, but it was a new media that came and changed the world in many ways. And just for fun, we're going to spend a minute comparing the social effects of novel versus smartphones. And there's a cat, of course, scratching here.
So I'm going to let the cat in because we are doing Zoom and that happens. Okay, we're going to start here. Let me just based on text here. Novels are definitely poison.
That's funny. Okay, we are going to compare novels to smartphones. Okay, you ready? What are these things? They're going to be in front of people's faces and you won't be able to make eye contact anymore. They're actually so antisocial. They're really going to affect us.
And we're going to bring them to our dinner tables or breakfast tables, and we're never going to have conversation again. We need to have a rule. No books at the table. I actually have that rule in my house. My kids are big book nerds, so we cannot have books at the table because they're very they get in the way of conversation. People are never paying attention anymore.
They're not looking where they're going. They're constantly looking at books and bumping into things. And people are even bringing books into the bedroom, like, wow, it's going to affect people's ability to connect with one another. And we used to back in the day, we used to just connect with strangers all the time. But now we always have a book in front of our face and we can't really interact anymore. And people even bring books to the bathroom.
And I'm not going to show you a picture here, but if you want, you can imagine it. Now, obviously, I'm just being silly here, but you can see that books could easily be accused of negatively affecting our empathy and our ability to connect with others, but we almost never hear such complaints. But still, there's lots of research, actually, on the effect of reading fiction and the good news overall, reading can help people to become more empathetic. But that's just a fun fact, and we'll go back to our serious business of figuring out how digital technology might help us connect and maybe build our empathy. There are many discussions and debates about the effects of digital communication technologies, and I love this quote written by Neil Postman in his book called Technopoly, which was written in 1992, the very first year a text message was sent, and he writes, It's a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one sided effect.
Every technology is both a burden and a blessing, and I see it that way. So although this talk is mostly going to show you some positive sides of technology use, I of course acknowledge that there are not always positive signs. Overall, though, I don't believe that the scientific evidence supports the panicky claims about how new digital technologies might affect our connection and empathy. But of course there are features that are common to digital tech that at times could affect our ability to connect or our willingness to, so one they can be anonymous sometimes, and research shows that anonymous interactions can sometimes lead to less positive behaviors.
It's easier to hide behind the screen and harder to imagine the other person on the other side of their screen. And this is where you might see some of those negative examples, like posting on Reddit or some other website without really considering how people might receive and feel when they see that post. Sometimes digital interactions can be impersonal, and if so, having impersonal interactions with strangers can sometimes feel alienating and disconnected. But also it's not always a negative to interact with strangers.
There's some research showing that in-person interactions with strangers actually makes us happy, even though we don't seem to know that, and we try to avoid it often. But that's part of why the pandemic was challenging is because our usual everyday kind of interactions we might have had at a store or just walking throughout our day wasn't there anymore. Another issue with digital tech is that we can just sit there and take it. We can be very passive, and passive.
Digital social engagement reduces benefits of socializing online or in digital ways compared to being more active, for example, like posting and commenting rather than just sitting there and receiving. Another issue is that the authenticity of the actors online or in digital spaces is not clear. We can use like digital tricks and filters and edits that are not possible in real life, and this makes us seem more perfect than we really are, which makes other people often compare themselves in a way that makes them feel bad. And then multitasking.
I think we all do it. And I think if we know the science on it, we realize it's not good for us. It doesn't help us learn. It definitely affects our ability to be empathetic, because core empathetic practices include paying attention and actively listening. So if you're splitting your mind in different ways, you won't be able to do that.
And it's very easy to do that digitally and in real life as well. There are also fewer emotional cues online in digital interactions. But even on a video call, we can't make eye contact.
If I look at the camera, it means I can't see your face and same with you. So sometimes if we're doing text based interactions, we can't hear a tone of voice. So there's a lot of information missing in digital interactions that can make it harder to empathize.
And finally, just the sheer scope of digital interactions can be overwhelming. We can hear about people's needs from all of our loved ones to people all over the world. And this could just make us feel overwhelmed and not want to empathize anymore. Yet even with these potential limitations of technology, digital technology can also be used for care and connection. So now we're going to try to see if anyone has any examples of how digital technology was used for connecting or for caring with others. And this might be something you've seen or something you've done or someone has done for you.
Anyone I want to share. GoFundMe. That's a great example. That's exactly what I think. I think about online
donations and all the different ways we can now engage digitally, sending text message donations, helping friends or strangers we see in the news through those pages. Is there any other examples you've seen? Meal train, support groups onFacebook There are so many examples, even just simply, okay, good news. Instagram account. I love that. Gathering via Zoom for a Memorial service to share stories of a loved one. That's a great example. The Ice Bucket Challenge is something I've actually studied.
It's interesting to see, actually, with Ice Bucket Challenge, we have found that narcissistic people posted videos but didn't donate. And the low narcissism people, they only donated and they didn't post videos. So it was really interesting to see what was driving the Ice Bucket challenge. Emily says she's connected more with family and getting together via Zoom and texting someone to say you're praying for them and you can do it right in the middle of the day.
So there's all these different ways you can show support, receive support, see, become act pro-socially, care for others. So it's just kind of like this burden and a blessing. Just like Neil Postman said. OK we're going to shift gears a bit and we're going to now do some myth-busting. And I'm going to share some reasons that are based on scientific evidence about why I don't think digital technology is impairing our empathy overall.
And just for fun, I'm going to present a myth as if they're on social media, because that's where I often see complaints about social media. Digital technology use isn't social. Some people believe that digital tech use doesn't count as socializing, and I think this belief comes from the fact that we're often alone when using our computer or phone.
But this is kind of obvious. I think we've kind of covered it. But many of us use digital tech for social reasons, so I disagree with the myth because think about the last text you sent or the phone call, your social media posts or video call. That wasn't for work. A lot of our technology use is about trying to connect with others in some way, whether we're passively reading posts or listening, or we're actively posting texting or talking.
In fact, one study that tracked the smartphone use of College students found that the number one reason that students use their phone was for social reasons. So this is actually based on what they're doing on their phone. Among teenagers, a 2018 Common Sense survey found that only 3% of teens say that social media makes them feel more lonely, 25% say actually it makes them feel less lonely, and the rest says it has no effect. But at least you see that most teens are experiencing either no or positive effects of social media.
Digital tech use is one kind of socializing, and it has strengths and weaknesses like any other kind. A lot of technology is social, and research finds that it can actually enhance our social relationships as long as it doesn't reduce in person socializing. But research also finds that digital tech is especially beneficial when opportunities to socialize are limited.
And this research was done before the pandemic. But imagine living through the 1920 flu pandemic without the variety of technologies we now have to stay connected. During this current pandemic. A 2021 Pew survey found that 68% of Americans said that digital technology was helpful in keeping connected to others, 17% said digital tech communications were just as good as in person contact, and 15% only said that they were not useful for keeping connected. Another study found that people who use digital connection more often during the lockdown felt an increased sense of social support and belonging, which then made them feel happier. Now, I don't personally believe that using a phone or computer to interact with people is the same as interacting with person, but I just think that it can actually help us feel connected. And honestly, it's better than nothing.
Myth Two: Digital technology displaces face to face interaction. Some people worry that those who use digital communication technology are just going to stop connecting with people in person. Now let's assume we're not in a pandemic for this one. In fact, socially connected people are socially connected people both online and offline. Using these technologies is often associated with more face to face socializing, not less. It might actually help to promote our social capital because it can help us to form new bonds and also maintain our existing relationships.
Now, of course, pulling out a phone during an in person conversation can impair closeness, obviously, but so would other distrctions, like if you pull out a novel, So, keep those phones and novels away. Myth Three: digital technology use caused generational declines in empathy. Now here I'm a little embarrassed, okay, because I published a paper in 2011 finding that young Americans had declining empathy over time in the US.
Many people believe that this was because of digital technology, and even I thought at that time that this could be one of the potential causes. But I don't think that anymore. In fact, empathy in young people has actually risen since I published that paper. As digital technology use has exploded, empathy has risen. I'm going to show you the data. It's unpublished, but it hopefully will be published in the next year or so.
But just to show you this dramatic thing that we're not seeing continuing declines, so you can see this new data from my lab that, yes, there were declines in empathy. This is straight empathy here. This is empathic concern, which is emotional empathy and perspective taking, which is cognitive empathy.
And this is actually a behavioral task of reading emotions in others. And in both of these, you can see that around 2000, there's a decline. And that is why I thought at first that there might be some role of new digital technologies. But then I think what happened was the recession, something there with economics. And then since then, there have been actually increases, I think, dramatic increases in young people's self reported ability to empathize.
Again, these are unpublished papers, and we will try to publish them. But just to show you that I don't think anymore that social media is a probable cause of these changes. And I'm now considering potential economics changes. So let's dig deeper into research that specifically looks at digital technology, youth, and empathy. So first, we're going to start with some older media, such as TV, video games, and lyrics. Research has found that content really matters. Overall,
More violent media can encourage more aggressive behaviors, but more pro-social media can encourage more positive behaviors. This is worth considering because most research on new digital communication technologies doesn't ever look at the content, just the overall effects of usage. So I think that's an area we can move forward in research. Overall for social media,
research finds a link between narcissism and more social media usage, as you might expect. But of course, this could mean that more narcissistic people are more drawn to social media, and it doesn't necessarily mean that social media usage causes narcissism. There are fewer studies on empathy and social media, and the results are mixed.
For example, some studies find that less empathetic people use social media more. And some studies find no results. And overall, there's some research that suggests that when you take all the studies together, you're finding actually that there's a small positive effect, so that people who are more empathetic are also more likely to use social media. So it attracts both more narcissistic people and more empathetic people. And one study actually followed teenagers over time and examined how their social media use was associated with their empathy a year later. And the researchers found that the teens who use social media more, they actually have higher empathy a year later.
This suggests that either there's something about social media that could facilitate different kinds of empathy, even if we know that sometimes narcissistic people are also attracted to social media. Honestly, we just need more studies on this topic that either follow people over time and look at effects of social media use or actually randomly assign them so that some people use social media and then some people don't, and then see what happens over time. But for now, I think of this as the two paths to social media use. And people often use it probably for different reasons and in different ways depending on whether they're more empathetic or more narcissistic.
So I've been doing research lately on virtual reality, along with my colleague Fernanda Herrera and Alison Jane Martingano We have looked at a meta analysis of 43 studies. So we just took a bunch of studies, everything we could find on the topic of virtual reality and empathy, and we examined what was the overall effect. And we found actually that virtual reality actually can help to increase our feelings of empathy in the moment, but it doesn't increase more complex cognitive forms of empathy, such as perspective taking, imagining other people's perspectives.
We think it's because virtual reality makes empathy a little too easy. So it's easy you feel it in the moment, but then those feelings leave and it doesn't let the user flex their empathy muscles and therefore get stronger and have more deeper types of empathy. So as for smartphones, research has found that, as I said before, that taking up phones in the middle of a conversation is annoying and interrupts feelings of closeness.
Like, yep, I think most of us know that. But so far I haven't seen research that compares taking out the phone to some other form of distraction. And I think it would be really important just to compare any type of distraction rather than saying the phones themselves are the cause. I think it could just be like, well, you're doing something else instead of paying attention. Some research does find that having a smartphone nearby during a conversation, even if you don't use it, even just sitting on the table, can impair our ability to connect with and feel empathy for conversation partners.
And I think this could be because with the phone on the table, you always realize there's something else you could be doing, or maybe somebody is trying to reach you. And ultimately this to me, gives me good advice about how to actually connect with people. When you really want to get into a deeply connected space with somebody, it's probably best to put away your phone. And of course, you should also put away your book, whatever book you have, you should put that away and just focus on the other person.
But we really need more research that examines more social uses of smartphones and how that affects our connection with others. For example, I often share a video, watch a video together with my children on my phone, and we're looking at this thing together and we're laughing together. It actually makes us feel closer.
And there's social usage like texting a friend and checking in during a difficult time. And I think we haven't really looked at this question in the way people actually use phones. So I think it's kind of one of these double edged swords. Smartphones can sometimes impair empathy, especially if we use them as a way to block others. And they can sometimes encourage our empathy or facilitate it depending on how we use them.
So now we're going to talk about this amazing study, just speaking of smartphones and using them, the study that found actually that patients who are undergoing minor surgical procedures needed four times less pain medication if they were texting with either a friend or a stranger compared to if they were playing a game on their phone or compared to not having a phone. You can see that there's something about texting that makes people feel more connected, and it can be an effective form of receiving social support. My John Templeton Foundation funded research has supported two projects to create and test empathy building programs using cell phones.
At the time when I got funded, this was a really unique idea. People were not necessarily thinking about cell phones in the way we do now, where we actually understand that they can help promote our good health as well. But I thought it would be interesting to try to use them because at that time, I did wonder whether phones and social media were causing declines in empathy. So I thought it was a good idea to try to use them actually to build empathy.
And there's two programs that we've developed. One is called Text to Connect. This is just a direct instructional approach using text messages. And I'll show you some examples in a minute.
And then the other is called Random App of Kindness, which is more like a bunch of little games using a smartphone app. Both of them capitalize on what phones are good at — habit forming. We all know that phones are getting us into new habits, but they're not obviously replacement for social interactions in person. I obviously think that these are good methods of teaching, but they're not the same as teaching empathy through caring long term relationships, but they could be supplemental.
Another cat is joining us. Okay. What we did is for both studies, we developed the content first using scientific principles of empathy, what we knew about how to build empathy. And then we tested the content in randomized control trials.
So we gave some people the program and then other people something else. And then we check to see whether they were affected. So here are a couple of examples of Text to Connect messages in your next conversation. Pay attention to the other person's body language and understand what they're feeling. This is a form of cognitive empathy where you're just noticing and trying to understand the other person's perspective.
Another message says, take a second to think of a close friend. Now do something nice for them today. And I just showed this example as a behavior, a kind behavior because in our programs, we are trying to increase empathy for the purpose of increasing kind behaviors. So it's not just like hypothetical to feel empathy and sit there on your own, but, like, feel empathy. And then there's an action that goes with it. What we found for this study is that receiving these types of messages for two weeks compared to control messages help to reduce aggressive beliefs and increase healthy behavior in young people.
I want to give some examples of what teens said when they used this program. Here's a young lady at age 14, and she said it made me think about the people I care about and how I take them for granted. And here's a young man aged 18, and he said, I love the way that every time I got a text, no matter what it was I was doing, I would look at my phone and for a minute I'd be able to think about things that mattered deeply to me.
And here's another young man aged 17, and he said The timing of some of the texts was perfect. Like, sometimes I would actually be arguing with someone, and then I got the text and just stopped arguing altogether. That's why it was interesting to actually hear their words and not just the numbers, to see that this was something that was actually effective and reached teens. The second program we made is called Random Acts of Kindness, and we use scientifically valid principles of building empathy and pro social behavior. And we try to create a series of little games that people can just play over time and hope that they would strengthen their empathy muscles. Here's one example of a game.
You try to increase the word anger, the emotional words, and then you try to move the different pieces of the taste and try to make it into what looks like an angry face. And this game just teaches basic emotional identification, which is looking at the different parts of the face and being able to understand what emotion is being expressed based on both parts of the face. Another example here is Help the Crying Baby We picked this example because we know that babies are very helpful in helping us want to nurture or want to be empathetic.
Anybody who's cute and vulnerable. Babies and pets help us become empathetic. And you'll notice, of course, the goal of this game is to give the baby what the baby needs. We used real baby cries from YouTube. We didn't do anything to babies. Baby babies who needed a diaper change or who were hungry.
And we also used expression of disgust on the face or something like sadness. And the person the child playing this game would have to look at the face and listen to the sound and pick the right object, either the diaper or the bottle. Now, obviously you see poison and scissors here and we didn't harm any cartoon babies at all.
But we have this in here because empathy is not just about giving help and doing kind acts, but it's also about not being mean. So what would happen here if they gave the wrong item is that the baby would cry even more. So, again, no baby in this app ended up not even cartoon babies were harmed. Okay, overall, I just say we did find that this app, playing this app for two months help teens to have higher empathy, more helping behavior, and less aggression.
There are some other tools you can find, if you're curious, some different apps and games and websites and Common Sense Media is usually a good place to look for ideas. Okay, what about video calls? Video calls have been around for a long time since Skype, but they've really been used a lot more since the pandemic. A 2021 Pew survey found that 40% of American adults and they often or sometimes feel worn out or fatigued after spending time on video calls. So this is called Zoom fatigue. We've all heard of it.
It's not just Zoom, it's any video call. And Jeremy Bailenson has written about this. He suggests that video conversations often take more energy because of technical issues. That's one problem.
And those technical issues can disrupt our typical mimicry that we do when we're in person with each other. That helps to facilitate connection and can also just kind of disrupt the conversation. People are like, oh, wait, what were you saying? Or I can't hear you and so on. Video calls also make us sit still in front of a camera, and often we see our faces directly in front of us, like we're looking at a mirror, which lots of psychology research has shown is unpleasant and makes us act in kind of like an odd way.
It makes us focus on ourselves and often in a negative way. Video calls often have the unfortunate side effect of feeling stared at by a lot of people. And all these eyes are staring at us. And that's not usually how it's like to walk in a room. People are often looking at different things, and it's rare for everyone to be looking at even a speaker at the same time. So more directly relevant to today's topic of social connection, research by Jeffrey Hall finds that video conversations are actually sometimes associated with more feelings of loneliness compared to face to face communication or even phone calls.
And he thinks this is because when you see someone on video, a loved one on video, you just remember what you're missing. And what you're missing is touch and being in the same room with them. I think we've all experienced this recently, so Zoom fatigue is real, but there are ways I'm going to talk about some ways to feel more connected soon. I do love this study, too.
This is an old study from 2009 in which the researchers examined how interacting face to face versus on a video call would affect people's feelings of connection and also their willingness to help. So it's very relevant to what we're talking about today. And what they found was that this is the in-person condition and this is the one upper body video. They found that feelings of connection and helping behaviors were similar even on video call versus in person conversation with a stranger.
So I think that's pretty remarkable and really important in this time of working via Zoom quite a bit. But if it's just a headshot videos, they actually found that people didn't feel as connected and they were less likely to help. Yet during the pandemic, when we have in person conversations, we're often wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID. And while research has found that indeed masks can help to prevent disease, other research finds that they actually can impair our ability to detect peoples' facial expressions of emotion, which is one kind of empathy. I think you can see that example here in this picture how hard it is to tell what people are feeling. It's relatively easy in the top row, but when half of their face is covered up, you're losing really important views about what they might be feeling.
So at least on video calls, we can see people's full faces, which can give us more clues to understand what they're thinking and feeling. And I should also mention that there's been a lot of effective empathy training that's happened via video calls even before the pandemic. But like other digital media, even video calls can help us to grow in our empathic capacity.
The last part of the conversation today, I'm just going to review a couple of key ideas of how to have more effective and authentic digital communication. Based on research, along with my colleagues at Harvard's Project Zero, we recently received some seed funding to study something we call mindful digital engagement, and we're studying it in young people to begin with. But I think this applies to all of us.
The way we see that is mindful digital engagement is when people use technology in a thoughtful way in which they try to enhance their own psychological wellness, the mind, their own physical health, the body, and their relationships with other people. So it's actually about technology use in a very thoughtful, slower way and understanding that making choices that are going to lead to better psychological and physical health and better relationships with one another. So that's a project that we're going to be designing a scale to measure this, and we're going to be testing an intervention in a school. Okay. So that's one step I think is a good way to be more authentic online is to first put on your own air mask. And I know I haven't been on airplane for a while now, since before the pandemic.
But if you remember what it was like to be on airplanes, they always tell you to put on your own air mask first before you care for others. And I think if we're honest, sometimes we're not in a good place for taking the time and effort needed to empathize with others. And sometimes we're actually in need of others' care and understanding and other times we just need a break.
So don't forget to check in with yourself and reach out to others when you need their help or you feel lonely. You can do this using digital technology, and it's also helpful to take regular breaks from screens so that you can recharge. Research finds that doing physical activity in nature is one of the most powerful antidotes of feelings of burnout.
So stepping away from the screen seeing sunshine is one way to just recharge, but just pay attention to your own needs. And that's kind of a mindful way of engaging with digital technology. Simply imagining and paying attention to how another person is thinking and feeling is actually the most scientifically supported empathy builder.
It's the biggest effect that's out there, and there's dozens of studies supporting it. It's like being a Detective and looking and looking for clues about where people are at. And we can do this in all kinds of interactions, whether digital or in person. It's important to clarify something, though. It's not imagining how you yourself would feel in that situation. That's actually an empathy blocker, because of course you are different from another person and you might have different responses.
The goal is to actively try to see the world from another person's point of view rather than your own. Research finds that this can take effort, and we also don't get it right. That's called perspective mistaking, but asking questions can actually help us to better understand how the other person is doing. Okay, so voices are also important when using digital tech. Texting and social media, I see them like social snacks. They let us keep our social needs regulated in between deeper and more satisfying social interaction.
Just like eating a few nuts in the afternoon can keep our blood sugar regulated till dinner. But the real glue of social bonds is good conversations, and we can still do this with older technologies like the telephone and newer technologies like video calls. Although there are ways to make texting warmer and more intimate, like you can use emojis, hearing someone's voice tends to facilitate social interactions compared to reading the same text. And this is what research has found.
That's because it's easier to read minds and emotions in the voice than in written words. So in other words, listening to other voices helps us to better humanize them. When choosing between video or voice only, I strongly recommend voice calls when possible. My virtual reality research suggests that making a little extra effort is helpful to build deeper forms of empathy. Removing visual cues could help you focus on subtle changes because of tone of voice or pacing or choice of words or background noises.
Like, I don't know if you heard my cats fighting in the background, but that's happening right now. So just think through whether when you schedule your next meeting, whether it really needs to be a video call, and whether that's going to really facilitate the conversation. If it is a video call, try to find the right balance between the self and others. But first, bring your whole self to the encounter. And as we've learned during the pandemic, this often includes our imperfect home offices.
You can't see this, but I have backlighting, which is why I have this background. It's just like there's nothing I can do about it. This is my laundry room. It's very small here's my washing machine right next to me. I just touched it. We have imperfect lighting and sound.
We're not celebrities with personal handlers. And oftentimes during the pandemic, I was homeschooling with children's voices in the background. My cats are kind of hanging out there in the background. I think they're all okay. And the research finds that we're actually seen as more likable when we show our imperfections.
I call this the spilled coffee effect because the research was based on this person who seemed great and then accidentally spilled coffee. And actually, people like that person more when they made several mistakes. But when I think about being online, there are these extremes. I'll say, like, here's the rule. Say yes to hairbrush brush. Yes, use your hairbrush, but no to airbrush. Okay?
That's the rule to remember, be authentic, but, you know, brush your hair first. Also, another thought about video calls. I recommend hiding the self view to help keep the focus on others and less on yourself. This is something that I've been trying recently, and I've noticed I'm not as exhausted after a Zoom call because I don't have to stare at myself. Also, based on that other study that I showed you, using a head and shoulders view can be helpful for other people to connect with you. And I also recommend adjusting settings.
You can focus on only one or two people. That's helpful because research finds that people have difficulty empathizing with several people at a time, but we can do it much more easily with one or two people at a time. So digital tech can sometimes impair our empathy, but it can also build it and even in a time of global crisis and uncertainty, digital technology can help us to create and maintain quality connections with others.
This suggests that maybe it's time to keep calm and carry on with our virtual interactions, but let's mindfully approach digital media to take care of ourselves and others during this challenging time.