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Do Mobile Devices Derail Human Empathy?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 17, 2014

Networked technologies allow us to be "in a persistent state of absent presence" that can erode empathy and connection, according to Virginia Tech researchers.

In fact, researchers found just having a mobile device within easy reach-even if you're not holding it or using it-can lessen the quality of a face to face conversation, reduce empathy among friends, and deflect our attention from what is happening right before our eyes.

"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies," a research team led by Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech wrote in an article in the journal Environment and Behavior. "In their presence people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication and direct their thoughts to other people and words."

In the study, 200 participants were divided into pairs and asked to chat for 10 minutes on either a meaningful topic or a trivial one. Nearby researchers recorded their nonverbal behavior and the presence or use of any mobile device at any time during the conversation. Afterwards, participants were asked about their feelings of personal connectedness and empathy with their conversational partners. When a mobile device was visible, participants rated the encounter less fulfilling and less empathetic. That finding held for trivial and substantial topics, and the negative relationship between the presence of devices and empathy was even more pronounced when the conversation was between people who knew each other. Apparently the mere presence of a mobile device can derail the natural empathy between friends.

Earlier research by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University in Essex in the UK produced similar findings. Pairs of strangers conversed while seated facing each other. A nearby table, out of their direct line of vision, held a book and one other item. When the other item was a cell phone, participants reported lower connectedness and a lower quality encounter than when the other item was a notebook.

Research by Sara Konrath and colleagues, reported in Scientific American and at the University of Michigan website, indicates college students of today are less empathetic than they were 30 years, ago, and that empathy has declined the most in the last decade. Konrath conducted meta-analysis combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students between 1979 and 2009. While reasons are uncertain, researchers note the trend has accompanied the rise of social media and mobile communications.

But scientists say those results aren't necessarily discouraging. They show our brains are plastic and subject to experiential influence. And as Konrath writes in a Psychology Today blog, mobile communications can make people feel closer to distant loved ones, and that they have tremendous still fully untapped potential to help people manage physical and mental illnesses. She notes that paradoxically the same technology associated with our being stressed and distracted can be used for people to provide electronic encouragement, kindness and support to each other.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  connection  culture  engagement  relationships 

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