02/07/2020

How Tech Can Make Us More—And Less—Empathetic

29:13 minutes

A transfeminine non-binary person and transmasculine gender-nonconforming person looking at a phone with upset expressions
Credit: Zackary Drucker/Gender Spectrum Collection

Much of technology was built on the promise of connecting people across the world, fostering a sense of community. But as much as technology gives us, it also may be taking away one of the things that makes us most human—empathy. When we hunker down in front of screens and behind usernames we reduce our capacity to understand someone else’s perspective.  

Journalist Kaitlin Ugolick Phillips, author of the new book The Future of Feeling, joins Ira to talk about whether technology has doomed us to live in a society without empathy, or whether it can actually help fix the problem it creates. 

Plus, is it ever really possible to “walk in someone else’s shoes?” Courtney Cogburn, an associate professor of social work at Columbia University, is working to find that out. She joins Ira to talk about a VR experiment designed to help you feel what it’s like to live the life of someone else.

Read an excerpt from Phillips’ new book, The Future Of Feeling.


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Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, the story of Alice Ball, an unsung heroine in treating leprosy in the early 1900s. There’s a new short film out. It’s really interesting about her. And we’ll talk to the director a little bit later. But first, have you ever come across a Facebook post or a tweet by your friend you didn’t agree with right? You wanted to tap out a very angry response. How many of us have not wanted to do that?

Well, would you have done the same thing in real life? When we hunker down in front of screens and we hide behind user names, we are less likely to relate to people as individuals and instead stick with our tribe mentality. Or we’ll only see things from our own point of view technology was built on the promise of connecting people across space and time, creating more community, and it certainly does that. Look at the millions let’s say billions of people talking to one another, or maybe more precisely, at one another. Critics say technology is also eroding an important part of what it means to be human, talking about empathy, feelings of understanding, caring for one another.

So the question is, can the technology that divides us also play a role in fostering empathy? That’s the unknown my next guest explores in her new book, The Future Of Feeling, Building Empathy In A Tech Obsessed World. Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips, health and technology journalist, joins us. Welcome to Science Friday.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Now let me do a shout out to our listeners and ask them is technology making you less empathetic. Tell us about a time when technology got in the way of letting you feel or experience a different perspective. And you can give us a call on number 844-724-8255 or tweet us @scifri. How is technology affecting your empathy?

Kaitlin it seems like being online is sort of like a paradox. It can open up our minds and allow us to connect to people in a way we never did before, but it then can also make us angry, more entrenched in our opinion. Do you see it that way, too?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Yeah absolutely. I definitely see technology as a tool, and like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. So I think you know we definitely can create relationships and community, as you mentioned, but then that also leaves us open to some of the negatives as well.

IRA FLATOW: You talk about how online discourse has turned into quote, “conversation gamification.” I like that phrase. What do you mean by that?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Well, it can kind of feel like you are competing in a lot of conversations online especially on social media. If you’re on say Facebook or Twitter there’s that competition not only to say something first, or funniest, or wittiest, but then once you get a back and forth going, it can kind of feel oftentimes like you’re just trying to win the conversation or win a debate instead of actually listening to what the other person is saying.

IRA FLATOW: Well, is this a new thing? I mean, was this always going back 20 years when we started the internet and World Wide Web and those places, and now social communities. Is this a new thing that’s happened?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: So I don’t think it’s a new thing. I think part of what’s happening is that these newer tools that we use are kind of amplifying existing behaviors and tendencies that people have. And of course, some people are more prone to behaving in certain ways anyway. And these social technologies amplify that. So I don’t think it’s new, but I think we have more opportunities for it, and there are so many people online, and we’re talking about so many different things that it’s just it’s going to happen more often and faster.

IRA FLATOW: And does that screen in front of us, does that really serve as something we can hide behind and then feel less empathy?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: I think it definitely does in some cases. It’s kind of another paradox there because for some people being behind a screen allows them to become more vulnerable and share things they might not be able to share otherwise, and that’s part of that community building. But it also definitely– even now when it’s not as easy to be anonymous online, you still do have that barrier where you don’t see a person’s facial expression or their body language. And it can definitely still help you feel a little more anonymous, even if you are using your name and photo.

IRA FLATOW: And that one thing that’s different than speaking face to face, you can just make that quick tweet or that little Facebook comment, and you’re gone. And you don’t have to suffer what the reaction of the other person is.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Right, and you can kind of forget that there is another person. I mean, I see this a lot, especially with celebrities. People will tag on Twitter a celebrity with a criticism or something or something just really mean, and then occasionally the celebrity will respond, and that person you know immediately blocks them because they kind of forgot that was a person who could respond.

IRA FLATOW: So how do we get back some of this empathy? Do you have a formula for that.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Well, I don’t know if I have a formula, unfortunately. I wish it was that easy. But I’ve done some research and read about people who are trying to do things a little bit differently moving forward. Some of it is really simple, just a matter of as you were describing at the beginning, we don’t take that moment to think about how the other person who’s reading what we say might feel or what experience they might be having. I think really just being more intentional about taking that time. But also speaking of paradoxical things, a lot of people are starting to use technology to try and retrain our brains to be more empathetic.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s quite interesting our number 844-724-8255. Lots of callers. Let me go to the first one from Catherine in Pacific Grove, California. Hi there welcome.

CATHERINE: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

CATHERINE: So I recently started working customer service for an online interviewing company. It’s like video interviews for the most part. And I was saying that people contact us and get so frustrated about small issues, which is understandable. It’s frustrating. And it usually escalates to a point where they’re just like so upset. But we found that as soon as I go in and look at their video interviews to see if there’s a problem and can see their actual face, I immediately am like, oh my gosh. I shouldn’t have gotten frustrated. This is just a person who is reaching out. And I feel like if they had that same experience, being able to see my face, they would act so differently.

IRA FLATOW: Kaitlin, what do you think of that? Should we be doing customer service more face-to-face than just sending a tweet or a text or something like that?

CATHERINE: That’s really interesting. I’m not surprised to hear that. I do start to think about what it would take to scale something like that. I know that customer service can be really overwhelming. I know a lot of places are starting to use chat bots, but I can definitely see how using video could definitely add more of that empathy back into the process. So maybe something like you’re not able to do things in person, but having the option for video at some point, I could see how that could add a little bit of empathy back in.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think we have like an empathy reservoir in us that we sort of use up after a while. I mean, she was talking about customer service. You’re willing to put up a little bit with something that’s not going right, but then whamo. You’ve reached that limit and you go into that mode.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: I think you can definitely reach empathy burnout. I think that– we see that a lot with the news. If there’s a lot of really horrible things happening in the world, people can kind of get that compassion fatigue or empathy fatigue. It happens in the caring professions if you’re a doctor or nurse. And I think it happens in customer service, as well. But there are ways to rebuild that capacity. But that definitely happens.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You talk in your book about something we’re very familiar with around here, which is podcasting. You suggest that listening to someone with different views than you has there a bigger impact than reading those views. And let me quote from your book. “People we disagree with seem less human to us when we read their views than when we hear them spoken aloud. A person’s voice reveals something more fundamental, the presence of a human like mind capable of thinking and feeling.” And I guess that’s sort of a corollary of what our caller was saying about the facial recognition.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Right, exactly. Yeah, there’s been some research into this and showing that when you remove the human like capacities from a person, you sort of naturally see them as less human. So it’s not necessarily this decision that we’re making. And that also helps explain the way that we interact with robots in some ways. There’s also research showing that, even if you just put two people in a room together and all the lights were off, when they listen to each other they rated more highly in terms of empathy than if they read something that the other person wrote.

IRA FLATOW: Right, do you think people want to be more empathetic, especially in this politically charged atmosphere we have now? They may be searching for a way to make a connection? Or are we just you know so siloed into our own little tribe that it’s never going to happen?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: I think we want more empathy. I think we all want to feel a little bit more empathy from others. I think it’s a little bit harder to do that self-reflection sometimes and realize that we might also need to grow in that skill. I write in the book about an experience or several experiences I had with friends or even strangers online where I kind of didn’t realize until later that both parties were guilty of not showing empathy. I don’t think it’s a lost cause, but I do think it’s going to take a little bit of effort and intentionality.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you do offer one podcast. This is a really interesting name, Conversations With People Who Hate Me. Tell me about that podcast.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Yeah that’s Dylan Marron. He is a really talented performer and activist and writer. And he created this podcast, which I think just came out of getting really mean comments on some of his YouTube videos from people who called him names and said horrible things. And he thought, why don’t I call these people, have them on a podcast, and talk it out. And so he started doing that.

And listening to those conversations as an outsider is a really amazing experience because you kind of have this safe situation where you can’t respond immediately. You’re listening to a podcast, and you’re doing something else. You can’t immediately comment. You can’t have a knee jerk reaction. And I definitely flexed my empathy muscle quite a bit listening to some of those episodes.

IRA FLATOW: You mentioned a couple of tools in the book that you tried to use. Machine learning to predict where an online conversation might go sour. There are machines that do that? They listen and predict?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Yeah well so there are some that are in development, and there’s psychology that you can sort of jump a bunch of texts from a conversation that has already happened into these algorithmic machine learning tools. And based on other data and surveys, they can help you figure out where things went wrong. And now researchers are starting to try and do that in real time. So one example that is similar to this, but not exactly the same is the neighborhood social network Next Door has a kindness reminder. So if you are typing a comment and you use a word or phrase that has been reported by other users, something pops up to warn you of that.

It’s not perfect. I got flagged because I just named a couple of different– the names of some religions because someone was asking for a church recommendation. And I guess those words had been used negatively in the past. And so I got the little pop up. It’s not perfect.

IRA FLATOW: Stick with the sofa that I was trying to sell this week on Next Door. We’re going to come back and talk lots more with Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips, author of A Future Of Feeling Building Empathy In A Tech Obsessed World. I’m empathetic for her talking with me now. So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about empathy and technology with my guest Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips. She is author of the new book, The Future Of Feeling, Building Empathy In A Tech Obsessed World. And of course, we still want to hear from you. Is technology making you less empathetic? Tell us about a time when technology got in the way of letting you feel or experience a different perspective? Our number 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri.

Kaitlin you talk a lot about virtual reality in the book and how it’s been called the empathy machine. What kind of experiences, and why do you call it that?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Yeah, so I can’t take credit for that. Chris Milk is a filmmaker who first used the term, calling VR an empathy machine in a Ted Talk, actually. But the idea is that being able to put on a headset and embody a different experience or take someone else’s perspective in a little bit more of a literal way, the idea is that that can help you grow in your empathy.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I want to turn to an example of how technology might help fix the problem it’s helping to create. A better way to experience living in someone else’s shoes through virtual reality. Dr. Courtney Cogburn is an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University here in New York. Her VR experiment, the 1,000 Cut Journey, is aimed at helping people understand the nature of racial inequality. Dr. Cogburn welcome to Science Friday.

COURTNEY COGBURN: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. You started the VR experiment that’s supposed to help people understand the nature of racial inequality. Can you describe what it does please?

COURTNEY COGBURN: In this experience, we put you into the digital shoes of a black male as a child, an adolescent, and as an adult, experiencing racism in different forms and different contexts.

IRA FLATOW: And tell me how does that work, physically.

COURTNEY COGBURN: Well, you put on a headset. You have hand controllers. You’re able to interact with the environment. So you can grab blocks. There are others in the environment who can talk and interact with you. So it’s meant to be a very immersive, digital experience. And part of what we were interested in exploring was if you have this sort of face-to-face experience encounter with racism, if you experience it more in a visceral way, might you better engage the realities of racism outside of the headset?

IRA FLATOW: So yeah, tell me about what kind of encounters I will encounter in the VR.

COURTNEY COGBURN: So it’s an empirically driven design where you experience racial discrimination in the classroom, where you’re more harshly disciplined for the same behavior that other children are engaged in. There’s a scene with the police where you’ve transitioned to your adolescent self, where you’re just standing on the street, and the police aggressively engage you, yelling at you, telling you to get down on your knees, and put your hands up. You’re just on your way to a basketball game. And in the final scene, you have an encounter with a workplace environment where you’re applying for a job. And we’ve tried to create an experience where you feel dismissed and ignored.

So we really drew from a large empirical literature, as well as personal anecdotes shared with us to create different elements in these scenes.

IRA FLATOW: And the people who take the VR experience, are they changed at all? How did they come away from this?

COURTNEY COGBURN: So yeah, I think we’re looking at that in a couple of different ways. So one, we’ve run thousands of people through the experience. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 with one of our first engagements. So anecdotally, we’re definitely seeing that people and hearing people tell us that they really hadn’t thought about racism in this way. They’re more aware of their whiteness as a result of going through this experience.

But we’re also in the process of analyzing data from empirical studies that we’re running to get, from an empirical point of view, to get a sense of our people being moved in terms of how they’re engaging these issues how they’re imagining issues of race and racism in society as a result of going through this experience.

IRA FLATOW: Kaitlin, I know you went through this. When you did Courtney’s experiment, tell us about what your experience was like?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Sure, yeah. It was– first of all, this was my first time doing a VR experience that involved more than a headset. So as she said, you put on this backpack, kit, and hold these hand controllers, and you’re kind of walking around in this space. And I went through kind of a roller coaster of emotions while I was doing this. At first, I was kind of amazed by the bells and whistles.

And then as you go on I was frustrated, angry, by these experiences. I felt myself getting hot under the collar, at one moment, just kind of really indignant. And when I came away from it, I really found that– a lot of the criticism of VR technology used for this kind of thing is that it doesn’t actually show you what it’s like to be someone else. And I definitely– instead of feeling like, OK now I get this, I felt like it really emphasized how different my experience is as a white woman to that of a black man or a young black child. And so I just kept thinking about that and kept thinking that I already knew that logically, and I had read a lot about racism and structural inequalities, but having that experience just kind of added a little bit more empathy for me.

IRA FLATOW: But Courtney, you’re quoted in the book as saying, quote “Empathy is important, but it is insufficient.” What does that mean? What else is missing?

COURTNEY COGBURN: I think with some of these first person point of view VR experiences that are deeply emotional and moving, people sort of stop at the emotions and don’t change their behavior and don’t change the ways that they think about these issues, again, outside of a headset. So I think caring deeply about an issue or other people who are different from yourselves is an important component, but your feelings about this doesn’t do anything for the social good. That’s not what social justice is That’s not what anti-racism is. That’s behavior. That’s action. So I’m interested in how we move more people on the side of cognitive and behavioral changes, and not just on the emotional end.

IRA FLATOW: Courtney, when you are walking in someone else’s shoes like this, you might experience more empathy, but you also might feel stressed or uncomfortable in the experience. Does that make empathy less possible?

COURTNEY COGBURN: And I have some question– it may. And I have questions about whether empathy is actually necessary in order to engage social realities. Do you have to care deeply about me as a person in order to open your eyes and see what’s happening all around us? And so I’m not sure if those two things are necessary. I do feel like these negative, stressful experiences in VR could do one of two things.

One, it could make you more biased, and maybe ignore these issues even more and create more distance. I think in our experience, what we’re seeing so far is that it’s drawing people closer to these issues. It’s making them understand that it’s not just the one time someone calls you a name. Racism is a complex set of experiences and systems that occur across the life course. And it’s a much bigger, much more complicated problem than we tend to address in our public discourse. So my hope is that the negative visceral discomfort is actually benefiting us in terms of helping people grapple with reality.

IRA FLATOW: Kaitlin you went through work a couple of VR experiences for your research for this book. What makes VR an experience so effective at evoking empathy?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Well, I think when it is effective it’s because it does make someone feel a visceral emotion. And it puts you kind of in a different experiential situation. So as opposed to just watching something on a screen, you can’t really look away when you’re wearing a headset. And oftentimes, the content is 360 degrees. So you turn around and you’re seeing all different kinds of things.

From a technical standpoint, some research has shown that when there are emotionally and visceral experiences with facts, with just a few facts, because people come away really more with the emotions that they felt than with any data or statistics they might have heard. So those are shown to be some of the things that are impactful. But I think really it’s using VR as one tool in a bigger toolbox of things when it’s really effective.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that, and let me ask Dr. Cogburn first, and Kaitlin you can join in, seeing how effective it has been for both of your experiences why not– or are these VR sessions available to the public, and/or should they be used with anybody as training vehicles who deals with the public? Policemen, people buying counter work, anybody who bumps into the public in general to make them more sensitive?

COURTNEY COGBURN: Yeah, so a lot of the work is available to the public through streaming platforms like Steam. Our experience is not. And I think we found that for this particular experience, it’s not something that we want you to just put on the headset and take it off. And then not have any sort of meaningful engagement when you come out. So we’re exploring ways to integrate it into classrooms, use it in trainings, particularly targeting senior leadership of organizations who are grappling with these issues, potentially museums. So spaces where are you deepen your understanding.

Because part of what we think is so effective about virtual reality and in the piece that we’ve created in particular is not that it’s a magic pill, but that it may change the way that you engage information and learning and potentially your behavior once you come out of the headset. And that requires additional context to what you experience in the piece. So that might be a few facts, or it might be a month long class that you’re taking.

IRA FLATOW: It’s not an instant pill. Thank you Dr. Cogburn for taking the time to be with us today.

COURTNEY COGBURN: I’m happy to join you. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Courtney Cogburn, assistant professor of social work at Columbia University.

So with us is Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips. She’s author of The Future Of Feeling Building Empathy In A Tech Obsessed World. Couple of calls let’s go. Let’s go to Michael in Fayette, Alabama. Hi Michael.

MICHAEL: Oh good afternoon. First I thought this was cut off because you would run out of time on This topic. I don’t know how to put this into words, but how did the guests, personally, deal with– at least how did they the first time, cyber bullying and trolling. And do they have any tips for those of us who, because of birth autisms, don’t know how to speak in public or we’re always editing everything we write. We try very hard to be friendly, but we’re cut off and banned from websites while those people who are within websites use every kind of bathroom slang and sex slang known to man.

As a Christian, I suppose to have a loving attitude towards them, but I just don’t seem to be able to when I tried to be extremely friendly– this is one reason I don’t belong to Facebook, Twitter. Only career related– I mean hobby related chat sites. Thank you so much for your information. Have a great weekend and even better week.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you Michael. Kaitlin, you have any advice for him?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: It’s a good question. It’s a really big problem, and it’s tricky because it kind of gets, again, at that issue of for a lot of people, communicating online and through text is their most comfortable way of communicating. But then because there are so many people there, and there’s so much access that you can run into bullying and things that are uncomfortable.

I think that right now, we’re all kind of dealing with this fact that we are quote unquote tech obsessed and that we spend so much time on these platforms. I think being more mindful about our screen time, the amount of time we actually spend doing this stuff, and when we get offended by something and upset by something, taking a few breaths before responding or asking ourselves is this how I need to be spending my time right now. It’s not ideal. I think in the longer term these social platforms and the ones that we end up using 5, 10 years from now need to be constructed with better guardrails and with more empathy for their users, so that we don’t have to worry as much about these things.

IRA FLATOW: Are our kids who are on these devices and not interacting with people, but just leaving maybe snarky comments, are they not having a life experience, a face-to-face life experience that they should have if this were another time and place? Are they missing out on that kind of interaction?

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: So I think you know obviously depends on the kids, but overall, that does seem to be the impression that a lot of experts doctors, teachers, parents have. The more screen time, the less face time. And in the book, I write about one teacher that I interviewed who had a class of fifth graders, and she said they were all communicating with each other all the time.

They were texting each other and communicating via different apps and games, but they weren’t really saying anything. Even in those games, it was just kind of the act of communicating. And then when she put them in small groups to do a group project, they did not know what to do with each other. They kind of didn’t know how to communicate. So I do think this is a growing problem. And you’re kind of missing out on building those interpersonal skills that empathy really helps with, taking someone else’s perspective, for example.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips, author of The Future Of Feeling Building Empathy In A Tech Obsessed World. Let me see if I can get one last call in before we have to go here. Let’s go to Toronto to Minosh. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

MINOSH: This is Minosh from Toronto. And I’m 20 year listener to your program from FM radio to here. It’s great infotainment. My question for your guest is I’m a software architect and I work like with people in Philippines and India, though I’m in Toronto. So I’m an eastern time zone. And like I was walking some time back, it was like 3:00 PM here, but 4:00 AM in Philippines and 1:30 AM in India.

And when you work with the software developers there, what I find is we never emphasize the fact that those guys are working a night shift from 11:00 AM to 7:00 AM. We don’t realize that they have traveled two hours to work one way, and four hours of commute every day. And when we are doing meetings or when we are trying to do our work, I feel like we don’t consider, we don’t place us in their shoes. So how can we empathize better with people in a global workforce that is spread across time zones? And Ira great program and keep it up for future.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Minosh in Toronto. What do you say to that Kaitlin.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: That is a really great question. I do know– it just makes me think of the fact that a lot of businesses and corporations are starting to think more about this and doing more like empathy training workshops. We have diversity and inclusion, but then they’re also in some cases really emphasizing explicit empathy. I think it’s something that we’ll see more of.

In terms of what someone could do right now, I think just trying to have a conversation about that. I mean, bringing it up on the radio is great. And now hopefully more people are thinking about it. But if that’s something that you can bring out within your organization, and ask for that kind of training or workshop, I think that would be great.

IRA FLATOW: Well maybe you can find things that you find in common, like football score or something informal that you can then find something that you can talk about.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Right. Yeah, finding common ground is always a great way to build empathy, and even if you’re just joking about the fact that it’s the middle of the night and we’re both working, or what’s the weather like where you are, I think that can really help as well.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah because I talk to a lot of people and to really break down barriers or to gain empathy for what we do, you just talk to people.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Especially when you don’t have that face-to-face So as we talked about, the voice is a really great way to convey empathy. So if you at least have that connection with someone, you can use it.

IRA FLATOW: There’s even a study that says a better audio connection like a radio connection you gain more empathy than if you do on the phone, which is a bad connection. That’s why we tell everybody to get in the studio like you.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Kaitlin. Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips, author of the new book, The Future Of Feeling Building Empathy In A Tech Obsessed World. And you can find an excerpt on our website, sciencefriday.com/empathy. Thank you again, Kaitlin.

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILIPS: Thank you so much. It was fun.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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