Tag Archives: Psychology

What We Lose with Digital Communication

Houseparty. Zoom. Skype. FaceTime. Google Meet. Etc.

Indeed, there are myriad ways to remotely connect with others. Doing so is important in a world that does not find most of us living together in groups of extended family or friends. The current global pandemic response to Covid-19 is requiring us to rethink how we maintain our social relationships, particularly those that were previously largely restricted to the domain of face-to-face communication. Those relationships have now either gone by the wayside or have crossed into the realm of the relationships that were already largely digital.

We know that Covid-19 has turned the world on its head. This provides an important opportunity to delve into the influences digital technology has had, and will continue to have, on the ways that we communicate with others. Humans are social creatures who have evolved due to and on the basis of face-to-face relationships; digital communication is not that and we are not wired to communicate digitally.

This is not to say that digital communication cannot benefit nor facilitate interaction, but it does not have the same impact as a face-to-face conversation. While many might argue for its necessity, we also need to understand what digital communication can and cannot provide for its highly social users.

Neurological elements of conversation

Firstly, face-to-face communication allows for the full gamut of available stimuli to be processed by our brain. We have evolved to recognise micro-expressions and interpret body language and tone subconsciously and rapidly as part of what comprises communication. Recent psychology research, such as that of Joy Hirsch among many others, suggests that we mimic others’ gestures during verbal communication to enhance comprehension. Both congruence and incongruence between gestures and verbal communication act as social cues that then inform the subsequent interaction. Hirsch extends this research into trust, arguing that it is congruence between gestural and verbal communication that signals openness and trust.

Additional research suggests that face-to-face communication leads to activation of mirror neurons, which fire when we are performing a specific action and watch others do the same. This ability to recognise, process, and experience the mental states of others is one of the explanations that psychology can provide for the development of human empathy. Current research with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has allowed researchers to look at areas of the brain that activate in relation to the self, to others, and in relation to a computer. When dealing with humans, the hormone oxytocin increases trust. The same response does not occur when dealing with a computer.

Unfortunately, the nature of digital communication allows so much scope for distraction, so much extraneous cognitive load, that achieving such a relationship is nigh impossible. The implications of this are obvious.

But there are other effects to consider.

Empathy

As social creatures, humans have evolved to step into the shoes of others (whom those others might be is a fun topic in evolutionary psychology research) and take action accordingly. Relationships require us to understand one another’s emotions and perspectives and most of us know that this is challenging at the best of times. What happens when digital communication removes the facial expressions, gestures, tone, and cadence that we rely on to understand the meaning behind what others are saying? Additionally, what happens if we have not actually developed the ability to interpret these complex, nuanced cues as a result of the depth to which we have adopted digital communication?

Research suggests a decline in empathy scores over time with the most significant change occurring between 2000 and 2009, correlating with the rise of digital communication. Later generations of college students have shown lower scores on both empathic concern, the emotional component of empathy, and perspective-taking, the cognitive component of empathy. Clearly, this is a problem.

However, it is also fair to point out that not all digital activity is the same and, therefore, the effects digital activity has on empathy can also vary. Research suggests that online activities that are a precursor to face-to-face communication are associated with higher real-life empathy, but other online activities that do not lead to face-to-face communication instead reduce real-world empathy scores. For example, chatting online with someone for a month means that I am far more likely to be empathic towards them when/if we meet in person, but participating in online activities based in fantasy worlds that do not transfer to real life might actually reduce real-world empathy.

Moreover, substituting digital communication for face-to-face communication can lead to a decrease in empathy because the brain’s empathic response depends on stimuli that digital communication filters out. As the researchers above suggest, while virtual empathy is positively correlated with real-world empathy, it is lower overall than real-world empathy scores. This means that we do not respond the same way in digital and in in-person spaces.

For example, think of the last time you ended a digital conversation feeling dissatisfied or distant. There’s a very strong possibility that someone responded to you in a digital space in ways that are not as thoughtful as you would have liked. This might be because the cues you sent were simply not picked up.

This brings us to another effect of digital communication, which is that of distraction.

Distraction

Most of us have been there. We’re messaging a friend and waiting for a reply when another notification pops up, or a housemate walks into the room, or the timer on the oven goes off. We put down our phone and our conversation pauses. When we return to the conversation again, even moments later, we pick up like nothing has happened.

But it has. While I’m taking something out of the oven or replying to an email, my friend might be sitting alone waiting for my response. My friend might have watched my status go from “typing” to blank space. And when I return to the conversation, I have no way of knowing what my friend has experienced in the time that lapsed. My friend doesn’t know what I was doing, either. 

In person, conversation depends on cadence and on rhythm. It ebbs and flows based on pauses, tone, and body language. I show I am listening by nodding or making appropriate noises. And I know it’s my turn to speak when suitable time has passed or I am asked a question.

Despite the immediacy of face-to-face communication, misunderstandings still occur. We all know this. This begs the question: If we get conversation wrong so often in real life, with all the richness of the cues and prompts in full view, how do we fare in the sterility of a digital space?

Psychology tells us (thanks to Danish physicist Tor Nørretranders) that over 85% of the stimulus that goes into our brains is visual, which means that all of the visual stimulus occurring at a particular time is competing for our attention. This means that anything that our eyes hook onto runs the chance of taking our attention away from anything else that was happening. As stated above, this could be as seemingly benign as a notification.

Psychology also tells us that less than 1% of all the sensory stimuli that are around us arrive at the brain. Think about that again. Less than 1% of what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste actually gets registered by our brain.  Attention is the most critical variable in being understood, yet it is also the thing that is seduced the most in a remote world. Without the immediacy of our conversation partner to direct us to the interaction that we are having, we waver, we wander, and we lose.

Induced media multitasking

Considering what we know about the brain’s capacity to pay attention to stimuli, it is not surprising that humans are poor multitaskers. In fact, we do not multitask at all. Instead, the brain performs extremely rapid switches to allow us to go back and forth between tasks. As I write this, music is playing in the background. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on the words I’m typing when Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is interrupting.

But if you’re anything like my students, you’d shout, “But wait! I need music to focus!” Some people claim that. Although the human brain is wired to process competing stimuli as a matter of survival, the processing of multiple stimuli means that we have a greater cognitive load and therefore less bandwidth, as in the above from Nørretranders, to pay attention. This means that while we can, by all appearances, do more than one thing at once, or attend to more than one area at a time, switching our attention also means that we do neither thing well.

To put it bluntly, the digital world requires us to look at multiple things. We do not look at any of them well, despite all we might say to convince ourselves and others of the opposite.

The erosion of meaningful connection

When communicating in digital spaces, we are less empathic, more distracted, and caught between competing stimuli. These are only some of the considerations to be aware of as our contact with others increasingly occurs in the digital world.

I am particularly concerned with the effects this has on meaningful human connection. If all of the above weren’t enough, also consider the fact that it is far easier to separate ourselves from others in a digital space than in a physical environment. One issue here is the security that many feel with the anonymity that digital communication provides. The research on bullying speaks volumes about what can happen when people are not in real-world contact with one another.

Furthermore, my digital communication with another person is separated by a screen. I might read their words or even hear their voice but I am in my own world and my own space. This prevents me from experiencing what my conversation partner is describing and can lead to desensitization of myself from another person. I am occupied with my world and choose when to enter theirs but we no longer occupy the space together. As we become more distant from one another, our conversations might fade from intimate, if they ever were, to cursory. 

Ultimately, the fear is that we are leading to a world of emotional isolation. If we are separated from others and cannot connect empathically with them the way that we are wired to do, what is left of communication? And without the connection that real-world communication facilitates, who do we become? How are we supposed to feel, to experience, to be? Who can we share our lives with?

These are very real questions that have been asked before, but the time now mandates that we ask them again, and do so forcefully.  All of us who are fortunate enough to have access to the digital world will experience some if not all of what is noted above, and all of us are therefore obliged to look around us, to acknowledge the issues that exist, and to act so that we can maintain some of our humanity.


Special thanks to a friend for the questions and dialogue that sparked this piece.

In transition

It’s interesting to watch the mind shift and change, ebb and flow. It’s interesting to experience from the inside, noting the sensations and thoughts at hand, while also experiencing from the outside. That is, watching the self have the experience.

This is what I was doing yesterday when trying to come to terms with what I will call “the dark streak”.

Ever since I can remember, I have always had a streak of dark thoughts. These are the not-so-pleasant ideas that I know are there and every now and then under times of self-doubt, uncertainty, or stress, make their presence known. The dark streak, which I have previously also called the “demons“, is common enough that I am not especially bothered by it anymore. Rather, I am curious.

After yesterday’s encounter with the dark streak that annoyed me because I really hadn’t planned on it being there, I sat down to deliberately make observations. This is what I noticed:

  • The dark streak is likely to rear its head when I experience a sense of isolation. It goes away with a tangible reminder that I am actually not as alone as I might have thought.
  • The dark streak is imaginative rather than destructive. It likes to ponder a range of possibilities and actually gives me a lot to think about when I follow it.
  • The physical sensations that I experience at these times are more closely linked to the part of my brain that is observing the experience. The dark streak might be running hot but my body and mind remain calm and cool if I am watching the dark streak rather than running with it.
  • While the dark streak can paint a vivid image that stays with me, there is a difference between experiencing the image from inside and watching myself experience the image from outside. The latter perspective is that of the observer that I mentioned above.

I don’t ask why this happens – I’ve had help figuring that out. Instead, I can simply ask whether this is normal. But with that question on the tip of my tongue, I can also think of the idiosyncrasies that people have pointed out over time and all I can do in response is shrug. Put all the weird things together and that’s what makes us individuals, right?

There’s a dark streak in me and that’s okay. It’s hardly surprising that we’d become acquainted again.

Society has been experiencing a dramatic transition in the last weeks and months, and this will continue for the weeks and months to come. There will be economic and political effects felt for years, and perhaps a reckoning of social structures that have gone unquestioned for far too long. With transitions come the opportunity to change, reinvent, renew, and restore. Transitions allow us to look around, to ask questions, and to take the time (after all, we are not so busy any more) to do the hard work of figuring out who we are and who we want to be.

I will not romanticise here and claim that I am grateful for this time. (Rest assured, I was crushed when Singapore announced on Friday that we’d be joining the ranks of the rest of the world with school closings and movement restrictions.) But, as I have said for a long time, we need to take much more time to think and much more time to understand ourselves and one another. We have this time. Use it wisely.

How to Solve a Problem: Step One

The first step to solving a problem is identifying the problem. We cannot fix something or change something if we don’t see it.

But what happens if we can’t see it, won’t see it, or refuse to accept it? What happens when we refuse to take responsibility for problems that are brought to our attention, or brush them off as being someone else’s problem?

We can’t solve a problem if, for us, it isn’t there or it isn’t relevant. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t want to.

This might sound really obvious, but a certain attitude about problems is also pervasive in education. In my current context, there’s a deep reticence to addressing even the most visible problems, let alone the problems that lurk below the surface. This is troubling because refusal to see, admit to, and take ownership of problems harms both young people and the adults around them who are trying to do the right thing (because there are always people trying to do the right thing). Much contemporary education claims to be caring or compassionate and, in my experience, it often is not.

So, the first step to solving a problem: Admitting that it exists.

Problems in Schools

Every school I have worked in call itself a community. It’s common to hear, “In our community we believe X. We do Y. We are Z.” This means that we are all responsible for the development and action of X, Y, and Z, which also means that when there is a problem, we need to address it. Unfortunately, addressing the problem is often neglected and I think there are a number of reasons for that. These reasons will be explored below.

For context, my school uses the phrase “see it, own it” as a way of dealing with issues that are (arguably) detrimental to learning. I recently learned that “see it, own it” is an abstraction of The Oz’s Principle‘s “See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It”. Clearly, there are multiple parts here. If you see a problem, you need to do something about it. Claiming only “see it, own it” is an abstraction of this much larger idea, and it seems to have neglected a fundamental part.

My concern with an educational environment in which “see it, own it” is enough is the lack of collective responsibility. If we want a certain community, I say to my students all the time, we have to build it. We can’t just talk about it – we have to do something.

So why don’t we?

Fear: I can’t be wrong.

In evolutionary terms, fear is a primary human motivator. We are afraid of the dark, spiders, and heights because these things can harm us physically and limit our ability to reproduce. We are also afraid of losing face, losing a sense of self, and damaging our self-esteem. We are afraid of being wrong and looking like we don’t know the answers because we think we should. We are afraid of admitting failure because we put ourselves up on pedestals of expertise.

And when it’s very clear that something has gone wrong, we rationalise. We make excuses. We deflect. We remove ourselves from the situation and blame someone or something else. The fundamental attribution error, or FAE, applies here: If something goes well, it’s due to my disposition and I deserve credit, but if something goes poorly, it’s due to the situation and it’s not my fault. (Go figure.) We act like this because it is easier than accepting our part in what has gone wrong and doing something about it. It is easier to excuse than to solve or to do. I can’t be wrong so instead I push the problem away from myself.

As I explore with my students, psychology suggests that much of what we do is meant to protect us from what is mentally uncomfortable or difficult. This often comes in the form of cognitive dissonance. For example, I see myself as a person who cares for the environment and yet I fly many times a year. I recognise the contradiction and this makes me uncomfortable. Instead of giving up flying because that’s hard and frankly, I don’t want to do that (oh gosh, how environmentally conscious am I, really?) I tell myself that other people fly more often, or that the plane might as well be full, or that I don’t use plastic straws so at least I’m helping somehow.

I make excuses instead of solving the problem because I refuse to accept that I am part of the problem. After all, what would that do to my sense of self? What if I’m wrong? I am afraid of what I might find if I start to look. What if I’m not the person I claim to be? And what if everyone else sees that?

I am afraid and I choose to do nothing.

Indifference: This really isn’t my problem.

Another reason that people in schools fail to solve problems is indifference. They really don’t care about the problem because they don’t actually see themselves as part of a community that honours X, Y, or Z. These are the people who say, “I just work here” or “That’s not my job”.

While this might be valid in certain contexts and I accept that this may be the case in organisations, it is not an acceptable attitude when young people and adults are being harmed due to someone else’s indifference. If we do not all agree to be part of the community and build the community, there will never be a community. People who behave indifferently erode what could be and therefore actively harm everyone else and the very concept of community.

We have to recognise that the problem exists and this means caring enough about the environments that we are in to recognise that none of us exists in a vacuum. We have all chosen to be part of something and we have the option to choose differently if we realise we don’t want to be there. But we cannot simply opt out without having an adverse impact on others. Choosing not to participate is as much of an action as any other action.

Claiming that, “This isn’t my problem” is an action. It is an action of doing nothing.

Uncertainty: What am I supposed to do?

I think uncertainty is closely related to fear but I’m going to address it separately for the sake of clarity.

Many would argue that there are those who do care and do want to help but they just don’t know how, or there are obstacles at every turn. I agree that this is often the case. I have heard many, many teachers say, “Well what am I supposed to do? I don’t make the decisions around here.” Alright, yes. There are many decisions that teachers do not make, but there are also many decisions that teachers do make. One that has become increasingly obvious to me is the option to sit down with someone and point out a concern that they have clearly not considered, for whatever reason. There might not be a “fix” but at least there is now deliberate awareness of something that is not right.

Please understand, it is okay to be uncertain. But it is not okay to use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. There’s a slippery slope from uncertainty to something deeper and I think it’s important to be aware of this. The question of what to do often has a real answer and we need to recognise when we are asking that question genuinely and when we are using it as a way to shield ourselves from having to act.

What are we supposed to do? We’re supposed to recognise that the problem is there, consider our role in the community, and act in accordance with that role. What kind of community do we want to build? Behave in the ways that reflect this community.

Callousness: I just don’t care.

This one is really tricky for me because for a long time, I didn’t believe that callousness actually existed in education. It was a very painful lesson to find that, in fact, some people are involved in education just because that’s how life went and not because they have any sort of interest in young people or in making the world a better place. In nine years as an educator, I have learned that some people really are involved in this field because the holidays are good and because, in many systems, they’re largely left alone to do whatever they want.

I can say a lot about such systems but I will stick with the topic of this post right now. As much as it deeply hurts me to say it, there are people in education who just don’t care. I wish this were not the case. These people should not have a place in any environment where their actions affect others, and particularly young people. Such people are concerned for themselves with utter neglect of anyone or anything else. And they are unlikely to change.

I am disturbed by people who pretend to care because that’s how to get away with doing whatever they want to do, and I have learned not to trust them. It has been a difficult lesson. These people, in and of themselves, are problems that schools need to solve.

Conclusion

The first step to solving a problem is identifying the problem. We must admit that it is there. Members of a community are often very happy to be part of what’s going well and toss their hat into the ring of what’s popular, but they often fail to act the same way when something is not going well and is not popular. No one wants to be the person who says, “This isn’t working. I know we spent a lot of time on it but I dropped the ball here and miscalculated there. I’m sorry. This is how I will move forward and help us all recover.” No one wants to be the person who says, “I wish this weren’t the case but this is what happened and I’m not in a position to fix the system. What can I do right now instead?”

Schools have problems when those difficult conversations are avoided and when band-aids are put on problems so that things look better. In reality, problems are perpetuated because the retrofitted system continues. Schools have problems when there is no sustainability because there were no deliberate systems in the first place. The way to develop sustainability is to stop patching up the problems and actually get your hands dirty and fix them.

No one ever said this was easy. It’s not. But it’s essential if we want to live in a world that is more just than this one. And it’s required if we claim to be part of a community.

Step one: Look the problem in the face.
Step two: Take a deep breath.
Step three: Do something about it.