Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The End of Empathy in a World that Can’t Stop Texting

The End of Empathy in a World that Can't Stop Texting


The average teen sends more than 3,000 text messages a month (and that was a few years ago). But here's the thing: Ten percent of people under the age of 25 don't see anything wrong with texting during sex.

Even as technology helps us understand how relational we truly are, the basic currency of social connection — face-to-face contact and simple conversation — is becoming marginalized. Pamela Eyring, director of the Protocol School of Washington (which teaches social manners to corporate and government clients) has identified four stages — confusion, discomfort, irritation, and, finally, outrage — of what she terms "BlackBerry abandonment": the feeling a person suffers when trying to connect with devotees of such electronic gadgets. Since personal and business relationships rely on making others feel valued, devices put these relationships at risk, so Eyring calls an obsession with iPhones "cell-fishness."

But this is about more than an issue of gadget etiquette or a lack of consideration for others. It's about connection. While our electronic gadgetry is keeping us more connected in some ways, it is a shallow connection — not the deep emotional engagement needed for any kind of meaningful relationship. Why? Because texting and e-mails are set up for volume, velocity, and multitasking — that is, the splitting of attention.

Our gadgets therefore create an illusion of connection. The danger, though, is that they also set up a new way of relating in which we are continually in touch — but emotionally detached.

The one thing that our gadgets cannot do — despite the vision presented by movies likeHer — is feel emotion; they offer a counterfeit performance that imitates connection. Cleverly designed substitutions like robotic pet hamsters, robot puppies for the elderly, and therapeutic seals for depression "put the real on the run" (to use MIT professor Sherry Turkle's phrase). Reducing relationships to simple bytes that then become the accepted norm is "defining relationships down" (to borrow a phrase from the late Daniel Moynihan, noted sociologist and U.S. senator).

Because I listen to so many couples in therapy describing how they spend their time, I see how tapping on iPads and watching TV diminish our opportunities to engage with and care for another person. We become accustomed to the simplified, the superficial, the sensational; we turn to the endless stories of celebrity relationships and online dramas rather than engaging in our own. As political scientist Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, "Good socialization is a prerequisite for life online, not an effect of it: without a real world counterpart, internet contact gets ranty, dishonest, and weird."

There is also a chicken-and-egg factor here. Isolation, I am arguing, is an effect of our obsession with technology — but growing social isolation also creates this obsession.

More than at any time in human history, we live alone: In 1950, only four million folks in the United States lived on their own; in 2012, more than 30 million did. That's 28 percent of households (the same percentage as in Canada; in the UK, it's 34 percent). As NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg observes about these skyrocketing statistics, "a remarkable social experiment" is occurring.

How does this shift fit into the "design" of the creature we call a human being?

Western society long held the view that we are essentially insular, selfish creatures who need rules and constraints to force us to be considerate of others. Today, we are drawing a diametrically opposed portrait: we humans are biologically driven to be associative, altruistic beings who are responsive to others' needs. We should, it seems, be called Homo empathicus.

Empathy is the capacity to perceive and identify with another's emotional state. The word, coined in the 20th century, derives from the Greek empatheia, meaning "affection" and "suffering." But the concept was first developed by 19th-century German philosophers who gave it the nameEinfühlung, meaning "feeling into." How strong that capacity is in human beings is being proven in study after study.

Most fascinating, perhaps, is research showing that just imagining or thinking that another person is in pain — especially a loved one — makes us respond as if we are going through the exact same experience. Neuroscientist Tania Singer and her colleagues at the University of Zurich found that when a woman received a small electric shock to the back of her hand, the woman beside her, who received no shock, reacted as though she had received it, too: the same pain circuit was activated and the identical area of the brain lit up in both women. We literally hurt for others.

Roughly, the way empathy seems to happen is: you see me (or even, as in the experiment above, imagine me) experiencing a strong feeling, maybe pain or disgust; you mirror my response in your brain; you mimic me with your body (your face crinkles in the exact same way as mine does); you respond to me on an emotional level and move into empathetic concern for me; you help me.

As we imitate others in dimensions beyond the virtual, we also communicate and show them that we feel for them. This creates instant connection.

Psychologists point out that the cooperation on which society depends is a learned skill that until recently almost everyone acquired. Today, however, fewer and fewer people have the ability to collaborate; instead they withdraw from group tasks and social life. Real connection with others is being crowded out by virtual kinship.

When they become lost and desperate, the distressed couples that come to me for therapy pick up solutions that seem to offer immediate comfort but further distort our ability to really connect with another person. As MIT's Sherry Turkle suggested, our tools over the last 15 years have begun to shape us and our connection with others, so that we now "expect more from technology and less from each other." Substitute pseudo-attachments — even those with people online — can be seductive, but in the end they take us farther and farther away from the real thing: a loving, felt sense of connection that requires moments of full, absorbing attention and a tuning in to the real-life nuances of emotion.

In that sense, technology reflects a profound lack of awareness about our need for intimate emotional connection. In a good love relationship, if we can turn off the screen, we can learn to say what really matters to us in ways that build connection.

In Oregon State University psychologist Frank Bernieri's study of young couples teaching each other made-up words, pairs who showed the greatest motor synchrony — that is, those who mimicked each other most closely — also had the strongest emotional rapport with each other. In my own team's studies of forgiveness, nearly every injured partner told his or her lover some version of, "I can't forgive you until I see that you feel my pain. Until I know that my pain hurts you, too."

Adapted and excerpted from the book Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson. Copyright 2013 by Sue Johnson. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Appeared in Wired magazine:

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