By Amanda J Felkey, PhD
COVID-19 has understandably heightened our attention to health and safety. We have all gotten the message to wash our hands more and keep our distance in public places. While the health effects of this pandemic are readily apparent, there are several ways COVID-19 could naturally chip away at our ability to be empathetic and inclusive. The goal of this essay is to highlight why now is a time to be particularly mindful about empathy and inclusion. Knowing how empathy and inclusion could suffer during this pandemic will motivate us all to put more effort into understanding each other’s experiences and feelings. Knowing how our empathy is affected will also help us think strategically about how to mitigate COVID-19’s negative effects on inclusion.
Exposure & Suppressing
Being exposed to people different from us is a key component of preserving, building, and honing our empathy. Interactions with different types of people can allow us to better understand their life experiences and perspectives. Without meaningful interactions, we are left speculating and imagining another’s feelings and viewpoints. A study published in November 2019 found that quality interracial interaction leads to lower implicit and explicit biases (Onyeador, et al, 2019).
For most of us, work is the only place we encounter true diversity in our lives. Since we tend to surround ourselves with people like us in most facets of our lives, work is where we are most often exposed to individuals who are different from us. With respect to race and socioeconomic status, not only are our neighborhoods segregated, but where we go when we leave home (the gym, church, shopping) is also segregated. A recent study by Harvard poverty researchers uses geocoded tweets to examine how people travel around their cities. Examining more than 650 million tweets by 400,000 people over an 18-month period, the researchers determined that “racial segregation is operating at a higher-order level than typically recognized: Racial segregation is manifest not only where people live but also where they travel throughout a city and whom they are exposed to.” (Wang, et al., 2018)
With the remote working arrangements necessitated by COVID-19, there will be much less growth on the empathy front. As we remain in our homes surrounded by those like us, we will be less likely to actively challenge some of our biases that thwart inclusion. According to the availability heuristic, during our COVID-19 remote working, we will increasingly see the world through a smaller and smaller lens, one tinted by only by those with experiences and perspectives like our own. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut wherein we rely on immediate examples when evaluating decisions and making judgments, and right now we are surrounded by only those very similar to us. This reinforcement of our own perspective will deteriorate our empathy.
While COVID-19 has required social distancing and limited contact with other people, it has also been accompanied by a barrage of emotionally draining news. There are stories about job loss, stock market plunges, increased death-rate projections, and mental health issues. Our brain naturally suppresses emotion in order to cope with this inundation of information. Research by psychologists demonstrates that suppressing strong empathetic emotion can alter our ability to empathize. The good news is, if we know this is happening, we can work to rebuild and hone our empathy.
Proximity & Communication
Interacting with someone face to face is the gold standard because nonverbal cues are essential to evoking empathy. Research indicates that observing emotions is key to understanding how someone feels and can even help us decipher an individual’s intentions. In fact, when people are together, they can even take on each other’s feelings. Emotional contagion is the theory that individuals synchronize emotional expression when in proximity. This means if someone is smiling at you, you tend to become happier and vice versa. Studies have found that emotional contagion even works in groups. This synchronization of feelings is critical to real understanding and empathy because you are actually feeling what someone else is feeling (Coplan, 2006, 2011, 2012) (Hatfield and Rapson, 2009) (De Sousa, 2009). While we are social distancing, we will lose the benefits of emotional contagion, which could adversely affect our empathy skills.
Research finds proximity and touch directly increase feelings of trust. One experiment conducted on negotiators found shaking hands increased honesty and openness, and yielded better outcomes (Schroeder and Risen, 2019). Since trust is an important component of empathy, our empathy may be stifled when we no longer see our coworkers in person.
Studies show proximity matters because the majority of our communication is not conveyed by our words alone. In fact, only 7 percent of our communication comes from our words (Mehrabian, 1972). The rest of the message we receive comes from voice intonation, facial expressions, and body language, which are traditional trust indicators. Judy Olson, who researches human-computer interaction, found our text-based interactions (via email, Slack, etc.) are missing traditional trust indicators that in-person conversation provides. In lieu of traditional trust indicators Olson found people default to speed of response to gauge trustworthiness, and those responding more quickly earn greater trust (Olson and Olson, 2000). This rather arbitrary, albeit natural, default for earning trust can affect people asymmetrically and thwart inclusivity in remote teams. For example, average response times among employees without school-age children are likely much shorter, especially now while COVID-19 necessitates that parents navigate a schedule riddled with Zoom meetings for their children.
Because nonverbal cues are critical to empathy and connection between people, there is a large market for products making our remote interactions more closely resemble those we have in the office. Skype and Zoom allow us to hear voice intonation and even see body language. Slack fosters informal communication that can bolster psychological safety. Apple has even experimented with technology that would adjust video appearance, so it appears as if you are looking at the camera even though you are not. However, the company has not had enough success to bring eye-contact technology to market. Despite all these technological advancements surrounding remote work, there is still a loss of communication when we are remote. Most important, we still cannot make eye contact with our coworkers. And studies show that eye contact is necessary for building trust and connection. This means empathy will suffer when we are all working from home.
While we are all worried about health and safety, it is important that we are also vigilant about empathy. Since our workplace interactions cannot happen in person for the foreseeable future, it is critical we seek out ways to make up for the nonverbal communication we lose when we are online. Our personal situations during this time are so diverse that empathy is even more important, because it is the key to being inclusive of differences we do not know about. Now more than ever most of us could use a little empathy. So next time you are washing your hands, think about how one of your coworkers or students might be feeling during this uncertain period.
Dr. Amanda J Felkey
Amanda J Felkey holds a PhD in behavioral economics from Cornell University and has won several awards for her publications about her decision-making research. She currently teaches at Lake Forest College, where she is chair of the Department of Economics, Business, and Finance and chair of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. Notably, she wrote a paper (with Kaushik Basu) about multiple equilibria, which was published in Oxford Economic Papers.