As the world confronts some of its most formidable challenges in recent history, cultivating empathy has taken on new urgency. The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an age of social distancing, remote work, and distance learning, dramatically shrinking our social circles and our opportunities for physical, face-to-face interaction. For millions across the planet, the pandemic-driven recession has claimed livelihoods and jeopardized futures, while fueling everyday anxieties.
This moment of uncertainty and turmoil presents us a challenge: we can retreat inward and look out for our own wellbeing, or we can try to practice empathy, form closer connections with the outside world in spite of the difficulties and help to alleviate the suffering of our neighbors and fellow humans.
Applying insights from new advances in research, the tech industry can play a vital role in enabling us to pursue the second path. New developments in virtual reality (VR) technology, a deepening understanding of how different biomarkers help gauge our emotional state, and new frameworks of innovation all create unprecedented opportunities for developing products that enhance our empathetic faculties and help bridge gaps between what we feel and how we communicate and interact.
While the burgeoning field of empathy technology is replete with untapped opportunities, a number of promising companies and scientists are already blazing new trails in the field – offering an inspiring look at what’s possible when innovators leverage groundbreaking research and ingenuity to tackle one of the defining challenges of our time.
Virtual Reality: Walking a Mile in Another’s Shoes
The old adage that we shouldn’t judge someone unless we’ve walked a mile in their shoes still rings true – particularly when it comes to those whose backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews differ from our own.
While VR technology is most commonly associated with gaming and retail, it also makes it possible to see the world through the lens of others – and research from leading institutions like Stanford University suggests that VR experiences designed to promote empathy do in fact make us more understanding of others’ emotions and state of mind.
In 2018, Stanford researchers launched “Becoming Homeless,” an immersive experience that a study found increased feelings of compassion toward one of society’s most marginalized groups. New VR exercises are building on this research with an eye towards creating much more immersive and emotionally powerful programs – for example, workplace training designed to boost empathy while reducing prejudice.
Another interesting example stems from a current study out of Ben Gurion University, where Dr. Michael Gilad and his research team are exploring how the neural systems that enable us to empathize with others can be leveraged to help regulate our emotions. Their research seeks to examine how our ability to cope with and overcome emotional adversity can be positively impacted when we attempt to step into other people’s shoes and perceive the world from their vantage point.
Live in Their World (LITW), a recently launched anti-bias program, is based on similar principles. LITW incorporates VR experiences in which employees can see the world through the lens of a Black man, a Black woman, or a white woman in the workplace – helping trainees see how others’ conscious and unconscious biases shape the lived reality of different groups. These 20- to 25-minute sessions are followed by a cognitive learning module that integrates the experiences of the VR module and delves more deeply into the dynamics and impacts of workplace bias. This approach – combining the “emotional learning” of the VR module and the “cognitive learning” of the follow-up module – mirrors the way experts view empathy: encompassing both the emotional and cognitive realms.
Understanding Biomarkers, Understanding Ourselves
Advances in neuroscience and biology are not only revealing fascinating insights into the interplay between our emotions and our neurobiological processes – they are also unlocking new opportunities for improving emotional intelligence.
Biomarkers like heart rate variability (HRV), for instance, can help us understand far more than an individual’s cardiovascular health. Low HRV is also associated with anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, our retinas’ light sensitivity can help clinicians gauge our risk of illnesses like schizophrenia.
A growing number of products make use of these biomarkers to measure users’ emotions – part of an emotion sensing technology market that’s projected to soar in value from $21.6 billion in 2019 to $56 billion by 2024. By providing a window into users’ emotional states, such products can help caregivers, family members, and employers find ways of communicating more empathetically and with greater emotional intelligence and insight.
What’s more, emotion sensing products can also make their users more empathetic. Research points to a positive correlation between self-awareness and cognitive empathy – suggesting that the more we learn and grasp about our own emotions, the better a job we’ll do understanding others’ feelings.
Tech Leading the Charge
If technology is actually going to make us more empathetic, empathy must also be built into the products that the tech industry develops – and key industry players have begun to appreciate this. Take, for example, the Google Empathy Lab, founded by Danielle Krettek, a member of the tech giant’s Design and Machine Intelligence teams. The lab works to build empathy and emotional intelligence into all aspects of Google’s work – from the algorithms that determine search results to the company’s hardware.
Regardless of how long it takes to emerge from the current pandemic, empathy will certainly be a paramount factor in overcoming it. The very nature of the virus forces us to be more conscientious about our actions and how they impact others. As many have noted, we’re not just socially distancing and donning masks to protect ourselves, we’re taking these steps to protect both those we love and countless others we’ll never actually know.
At its best and most visionary, technology has always been about forging new connections and breaking down barriers to mutual understanding. For entrepreneurs who hope to continue in that tradition, there’s an abundance of opportunity in empathy tech – and considering the massive challenges of our age, now just may be the perfect time to seize it.