Is Empathy Fading with Technology?

May 7th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Research says occasionally ditching the screen is good for your career.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

If you’re a so-called “digital native,” – born during or after the introduction of digital technology – you may be slower than your older colleagues (“digital immigrants”) to pick up on people’s nonverbal cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.

In a Harvard Business Review piece, U.S. government executive John K. Mullen goes so far as to say that, “The internet may have partially rewired your brain in such a way that when you meet people face to face, you’re less capable of figuring out what they’re thinking.” One of Mullen’s articles in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology suggests that introverts who have lower self-esteem tend to rely on “computer-mediated communication,” and can miss signs of deception and insincerity in-person.

The consequence? Digital natives may be less skilled in fields that require personal interaction, such as consulting, financial advising and diplomacy, he says. But even as research findings on the brain’s response to electronic media may sound a little disturbing, it’s not all bad news. As the population of digital natives increases, he says, so do IQ scores – as well as people’s ability to multitask without errors.

Still, he points to plenty of research that suggests that over-reliance on an electronic environment can diminish empathy, interpersonal relations and even basic social skills, such as the ability to maintain eye contact. One study even quantifies the loss: “Because there’s only so much time in the day, face-to-face interaction time drops by nearly 30 minutes for every hour a person spends on a computer. With more time devoted to computers and less to in-person interactions, young people may be under-stimulating and under-developing the neural pathways necessary for honing social skills.”

And if you think interpersonal skills aren’t important, consider this anecdote from Mullen: “An executive of a U.S. wealth-management firm told me that after the financial collapse in 2008, some of the bright young advisers were communicating with wiped-out clients via emails that said, essentially, ‘Sorry, we can't help you.’ Those who did meet with clients had little time for them and gave the impression that they weren't interested in hearing clients' stories. They seemed unable to empathize. So the firm let these employees go, replacing them with older advisers who were willing to sit down, look clients in the eye, and discuss matters face to face.”

Mullen suggests going back to basics if you’re looking for a job these days (or, perhaps, if you’re looking to keep yours): Show you’re willing to make eye contact; try to pick up on nonverbal cues like reactions to body language; make it clear you understand the importance of face-to-face contact. These days, empathy may not come as naturally, but it can be learned.

Do you find you’ve become more reluctant to meet in person and increasingly wedded to your technology? Anecdotally, I can say it’s easier for me to hide behind a screen nowadays, but I’m making an effort to pick up the phone and (gasp) even meet in person. How about you?