Social media and digital technology must have an impact on our emotional lives because our social lives—whether analog or digital—always do. In my recent article for Psychology Today, I write about why we must move beyond “Is there an impact?” to “How, Why, and under What conditions is there an impact?”. Read the full article here.
These are rapidly changing times, in part due to the frenetic pace of technological innovation. How we communicate, connect, love, hate, and elect presidents are forever altered. Given this, educators, parents, and corporations are focusing on cultivating 21st century skills – skills like problem solving, synthesizing information, interpreting, collaboration, and kindness. These are skills that prepare us for the increasingly complex life and work environments of the 21st century, and reflect the changing nature of work, communication, and how we use technology to facilitate our lives.
I believe that of these, kindness is the most critical 21st century skill, whether your goal is a civil society or successful business. Kindness is at the hub of our pro-social selves and is the glue of civilization. It allows us to understand the world through another’s eyes and act meaningfully in that world.
What is kindness? Kindness means interacting with others in friendly, generous, and thoughtful ways. It means performing acts to benefit others without expectation of reward or benefit for oneself.
For that reason, forcing acts of kindness sabotages the motivation to be kind, and a display of good manners does not automatically mean that a person is kind. Good manners can exist in the absence of generosity and thoughtfulness, and can be motivated by the hope of reward and praise.
Kindness is distinct from other, related aspect of our pro-social selves. For example, sympathy refers to the concern for and understanding of someone else’s distress, feeling pity toward the misfortune of another, especially those perceived as suffering unfairly. In contrast, empathy is the capacity to experience what another person is experiencing, including thoughts, emotions, and sensations, all from the other person’s frame of reference. It leads to an attuned response from the observer. And compassion, perhaps the pinnacle of our pro-social self, is empathic and sympathetic awareness of another’s suffering coupled with the drive to alleviate it. Think Mother Theresa, although compassion does not need to be that elevated, complete, or grand.
So, kindness is at the hub of all these aspects of our pro-social selves. Kindness does not emerge out of a vacuum nor is it innate. Kindness instead is the result of core, crucial skills and capacities that lay the foundation for kind behavior and kindness as a moral compass. These capacities of the sine qua non of our pro-social selves: perspective taking, emotion regulation, moral reasoning, and modeling. Each of these skills allows kindness to emerge, and without them is impossible.
Here, I want to focus just on perspective taking. Perspective taking is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes, to understand that someone might think and feel differently than you do. Perspective taking allows us to feel sympathy and empathy.
In Psychology, perspective taking is part and parcel of Theory of Mind, which describes how we have a latent “theory” or belief about how the world works. This theory assumes that other people have minds, and that these minds think and feel and believe things that are distinct from what we think, believe and feel. In disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, where social understanding is disrupted, Theory of Mind and perspective taking may not develop fully or in ways that we see in typical development. In very young children, Theory of Mind and perspective taking is evident when a toddler plays a trick on someone, or surprises someone. To be surprised, one must not know something that another person does know. They must have their own mind.
In our current political climate in the U.S. as well as nations all over the world, kindness and civility appear to be crumbling. Xenophobia and “us versus them” thinking is ascendant. One of the most effective ways to combat this, I believe, is to practice perspective taking, make a habit of trying to understand what and why a person might be experiencing the world in the way that they do. Practicing perspective taking will nourish kindness in us all.
With the election less than two weeks away, we’re revisiting a previous post on “Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?”:
It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.
During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.” I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”
I found this conversation terrifying – not only because the thought of Trump as President is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.
So where does that leave us?
I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.
1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us – fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions – something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.
Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.
Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation – applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.
2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.
If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making?: Almost certainly for the better.
3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”
In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.
What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change – perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.
I had a great time speaking with Lisa Garr about Personal Zen and the Digital Mental Health Revolution on the Aware Show.
A wonderful and courageously honest blog post from Shira Renee Thomas on the experience and stigma of clinical Depression. The personal (and economic) burden of psychological disorders is profound, and greater than that of any other type of disease – including diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular illnesses! Over 350 million people worldwide suffer from Depression. Yet, we’re only now waking up to the importance of thinking of Depression and other psychological diseases as a public health crisis that requires much, much more awareness and many more resources to reduce stigma and help alleviate individual suffering.
What is going on in this picture? I’m the one on the right.
Well, I was having a special moment with Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, a master of the Shaolin Kung Fu tradition. Our conversation was part of the Rubin Brainwave festival. I was fascinated to hear about his life, from the age of 5, as a Shaolin monk, training in the most rigorous Kung Fu discipline. The title of our conversation was “Discipline as Art” and as was obvious from his demonstration on stage, his physical prowess is impressive and beautiful. You can sense the focused energy he devotes to his art, the discipline of Kung Fu.
In many ways, my conversation with Shifu (an honorific indicating a master in martial arts) was an action meditation, an illustration of how he thinks about his place and relationship with the world.
Me, asking about his feats of Kung Fu training: “Why did you learn to break a brick with your head?”
Shifu, with a laugh: “Someone asked me to!”
Me: “How do you talk to your students about overcoming obstacles in their life, about dealing with emotional challenges?”
Shifu: “I tell them to just do it!”
Like Kung Fu, his philosophy is action-oriented and full of focused energy. When facing obstacles in your life – just do it. Nobody changes you, you change yourself.
I had a great time talking with David Shriner-Cahn of Tend Strategic Partners about making the most of a stressful day and putting your emotions to work for you!
An interesting thought piece by Glynnis MacNicol on what might happen when the life you are living online diverges sharply from your real life. Ms. MacNicol alludes to some of the potential costs, which I imagine are indeed a risk. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if we could use technology to create a “highlight-reel self” not to hide or be in denial, but to forge a new story of our lives in an attempt to break out of old, stuck ways of feeling about ourselves. It could be an act of “re-visioning” if we do it right.