Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Emotions, social networking, and gender

    Our interpersonal expressions of emotion are shaped by biology and by our culture.  What is considered appropriate for a woman to say is not the same as what is considered appropriate for a man to say, for example, when the topic concerns one’s emotions.  Evolutionary biology had a great deal of impact on why women would be more comfortable with talking about and expressing emotions.  They were responsible for keeping track of kin relations, and the rearing of children.  However, culture also shapes and maintains how each gender interacts with their peers. 
    Social norms follow certain “display rules”.  This term was first introduced by Ekman and Friesen.  In their work, they defined three types of display rules - the tendency to express more positive emotions, the tendency to mitigate negative emotions, and the act of replacing one emotion with another.  An example of replacement may be smiling in a culture where negative emotion expression is not considered appropriate.
    Studies have also shown that women are generally higher in empathy than men.  Of course, as with any advantage, this can be a double sided sword.  This increased level of empathy may be the very thing that causes detrimental effects when combined with social networking and display rules.  If we only see and hear about those positive aspects of another’s life, we tend to discount the amount of negative emotions that other people feel.  So much so, in fact, that we then become more lonely and experience greater feelings of isolation over time (“Misery Loves Company”, Jordan et al.).  While this has not yet been directly tested in online communication, there is evidence exists that suggests that similar effects occur when “tweenage” girls go online (Nass & Pea, 2011).  A correlation was discovered that higher levels of using social networking are associated with lower levels of self-esteem.
    The role of social networking in shaping culture has yet to be fully determined, but we can see that language constrained to an online format is different than how we naturally speak.  From abbreviations to emoticons, new slang to meme references, language is changing everyday at an accelerated rate, but display rules place certain constraints on the way we interact.  This in turn shapes culture in a cyclical manner.  With several iterations, we may find that these display rules are magnified, exaggerated, or completely replaced by new norms.
    What we have to be constantly aware of is the insidious effects of long-term use, especially for those that are higher in empathy.  One solution may be the paring down of one’s contact list to only include those that we truly care for, close friends and family members.  When our list only consists of those individuals, we can experience true sympathetic joy at their accomplishments, instead of jealousy, as can happen with non-close acquaintances.  Another intervention might be realizing that other people have unhappy moments, same as us, but that they would never admit to that through social networking.  Realizing that this medium is a pair of rose-colored glasses may be the way to defy any blows to one’s self-esteem and to remind us of our common humanity. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Rethinking compassion

A few notes from today include the material covered by Stephanie Brown including her selective investment theory which proposes that "social bonds represent a motivational system for helping us give away what we need to help others." She explained that this mechanism can also describe compassion and the ways that we may augment that compassion, specifically looking to inhibit activation in the nucleus accumbens. However, I would argue that parental investment in another is more akin to sacrifice then to compassion that we may extend towards others, especially strangers. On another note, David Desteno spoke of emotion and social behavior, specifically looking at short-term versus long-term intertemporal choices. His research is most significant to my current line of thinking in that he is also looking at ways to cultivate compassion utilizing social media and subtle similarities between people that may invoke more compassionate responses. The questions that I have for David include whether or not these would necessarily invoke long-term changes in compassion behavior within the neural architecture of the human being or whether or not it would be important to look at training that involves more baseline similarities between human beings. For example, in Buddhist literature when looking at similarities between different human beings the baseline is whether or not that other person suffers which they inevitably do and that acts to create a sense of connection or sense of common humanity between those two entities. This might lead to some sort of similarity training or similarity remembrance that could activate neural mechanisms to create long-term compassion in the person. I think necessitating activism, also, acts to create a barrier to compassionate thought. This follows in line with the more traditional Buddhist literature and that the definition of compassion in that case only includes the ultimate step of thinking or wishing that someone is alleviated from suffering. If someone believes that it is necessary to engage in a compassionate action in order to engage in compassion itself then if that person does not know what to do to help the other person suffering or they can't do anything to help that person suffering physically then this might also represent one reason why this is a barrier to compassion.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Compassion Festival in Telluride

At the CCARE compassion Conference in Telluride there are a great many wonderful insights that have been related to me. One of the most important insights was brought to my attention by Cliff Sarah which involves learning about the Halifax compassion model. This model has three axes including the attentional and affective domain, the cognitive domain, and the somatic domain in order to define compassion. This parallels the approach of Ekman which uses four different dimensions to define compassion including empathy, connection, desire, and the ability to engage in prosocial behavior. Other important insights included the necessity for sympathetic joy, especially in the competitive academic environment, and the ability to gamify compassion through video games and online environments in order to engender that particular trait within a young audience. It is my hope that the following days will provide even more insightful commentary that may help to define and elucidate a direction for future research and compassion and human computer interaction, specifically.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Empathy Map for Makers

Empathy Map for Makers (for D.Compress at Stanford)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Secret Stressors

In class the other day, I, and I believe a few others, had a realization.  Most people have a baseline level of stress that is not equal to zero.  We live at, for example, a level one.  Our baseline state is not a calm one.  One reason for this is secret stressors.  These are things that we don't say out loud or even confess to because they are so fundamental to the human condition.  On Maslow's hierarchy of needs, they rest under the heading "self-actualization", but few people know what that means, let alone how to achieve it. 
One example of these secret or unmentioned stressors is the need for belonging, to have friends and to have a purpose.  The reason yoga and meditation work to bring us into a level zero of stress is that it makes this need for belonging irrelevant, in that it either makes you feel sufficient or that is relieves the pressure of that stress by letting you momentarily forget the need. 
There are two ways to approach the solution to these stressors:  top-down or bottom-up.  You can fix the big problems or you can work on your "self".  These concepts are not new, but working on one's self can take a substantial amount of effort.  However, working in this manner ultimately leads to long-lasting reform and overall greater well-being.  So your homework, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out small ways to work bottom-up to decrease the stress related to and compounded by the "secret stressors."  I have a few ideas and will share them with you on Monday!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Compassion and Altruism with "Strangers"

You can't force connection.   One of the most primitive bits of neural architecture we have developed in our brains deals with Theory of Mind (TOM), and because of it's highly useful nature it is not an aspect of our psychology that can be denied.  In short, we know that other people can hold different beliefs or false beliefs in their minds.  Not everyone is thinking the same thing.  This allows us to then put ourselves in another's shoes, to empathize with them when the occasion permits or demands. But this is not automatic.  In fact, we are able to do so more easily with those whom we consider to be members of our in-group.  Our in-group members are those people who we consider to be extensions of our Self, normally our family (kin), but this can also extend to close others such as friends or important business compatriots. 
For those in our out-group, there are two approaches empathy and compassion can take.  One, we can route compassion through a "common humanity" lens.  In this view, very few people (very "bad" people) are actually in one's out-group.  Then compassion can occur.  The other view one can take is more dramatic.  This is extreme version of TOM, where the other person is just another person, deserving of compassion, whether or not that outcome has anything to do with yourself.  I have always wondered which resonates the most with people, but also realize that this cannot be a universally determined question.  Different cultures see this nothing of self/other as more or less concrete.

What do you think would be the best way to help someone feel a connection to a "stranger" so that they might choose to engage in an altruistic behavior towards them?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sherry Turkle and A Revision

It's been a little while since my last post, but so much has happened that I would like to share.  I am in my second year now at Stanford, studying multi-tasking, and emotion in social networking.  Right now I am taking my qualifying exams.  For those of you interested in compassion, empathy, and calming technologies, here are a few choice words from Sherry Turkle: