Psychology of Social Connection

Entries from March 2022

Strangers, Ride or Dies, and All the Ones in between

March 25th, 2022 · 24 Comments

Strangers, Ride or Dies, and All the Ones in between

7.9 billion human beings live on this planet, and you and I are two of them. How many will we meet? How many more will stick with us, whether in physical proximity or in memory, in a single moment or for the rest of our lives? Why does it matter? Through self reflection, empirical findings, and a general consideration of our own relationships, we explore the nature and importance of our ties with other people in our world.

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Forming Bonds, Starting with Strangers (Olivia)

The girl who came up to me in an arcade in China when I was maybe six who stared at me for a few long seconds and opened her mouth and said, “You have REALLYYYY long eyelashes,” her face akin to 😲, who then smiled and happily skipped away leaving me stunned on the game seat… This girl. She is a stranger I remember.

Who is a stranger you remember? The maker of this YouTube video asks this question to strangers on the street, and the answers are fascinating. Why do some people stick, even if you never see them again?

I think a key part is the emotional impact of the interaction. A random stranger by definition has no prior connection to you, no obligation to interact, no ulterior motive to be kind, or rude. So, when such a person does cross your path in a way that affects your mood or thoughts, the experience sticks out. There are studies that show how even brief or chance social interactions can lead to more happiness and wellbeing.

Back, Schmukle, and Egloff (2008) conducted a study on college students to test whether random physical nearness and random assignment of people to the same group during an initial encounter would influence the likelihood of further friendship. They found that indeed, being near somebody by chance in an initial interaction can promote the development of a meaningful friendship, suggesting that prior connection or intention to know someone are not as necessary as we may think in forming friendships.

Another study demonstrated how weak social ties, not just close friendships,  are positively linked with social and emotional-being (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014). The barista at your favorite coffee shop and the classmate on the street you wave to in passing are not your close friends, but such daily and repeated brief interactions are as important to our wellbeing as the deep relationships we treasure and maintain.

What if you are actively trying to make friends and form meaningful relationships? From what I have learned from my own experience and from reading and hearing others, the most essential thing is to be open – open-minded, non-judgmental, leading with your true intention and letting the other person know.

Once you’ve started a friendship, how do you maintain it?

Maintaining Friendships (Spencer)

Maintaining friendships over extended periods of time can be a difficult feat. Two factors that have been demonstrated to lead to the formation of friendships — proximity and being part of the same group (Back, Schmukle, & Egloff, 2008) — can often go away as life takes people in different directions. In addition, jobs, family situations, significant others, health problems, physical distance, and more can all get in the way of stable, long-term friendships.

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If situational factors like these are constantly subject to change, what is it that allows some friends to maintain close bonds over long periods of time? According to a longitudinal study of college friends, the two factors that best predicted whether or not a pair of best friends would remain close almost 2 decades later were 1) similarity between the friends and 2) previous investment of time in the friendship (Ledbetter, Griffin, & Sparks, 2007). Furthermore, when people are asked what constitutes closeness in a friendship, they commonly report that self-disclosure, support, shared interests, and explicit expression of the value of a relationship make friendships feel close (Parks & Floyd, 1996). If these things go away, the friendship is likely in trouble.

With this in mind, I would like to tell the story of my relationship with my best friend from middle school. It’s an example of trying to maintain a friendship, failing, and ultimately coming to terms with the “commemorative” place that a friend can hold in my life.

Our friendship began in 6th grade. At that time, it felt like we connected over everything. We went to school together, we lived a few blocks from each other, we played the same position on the same basketball team, we both loved the same goofy sitcoms, and we were both used to being the shortest kid in the class. For three years, we were largely inseparable, hanging out with each other most days after school and doing things together almost every weekend. As a result of how much time we spent together, our moms became best friends and our family units gradually integrated together. In short, our lives were deeply intertwined.

Then high school came. Each of us remained largely the same in terms of our personalities and our interests, but signs began to emerge that our paths were diverging. For one, we no longer went to the same school. This resulted in our social circles and our time commitments changing. In spite of these shifts, we remained fairly close and continued to bond over our shared interests, such as playing sports, following the NFL, and watching the sitcoms we both loved. But over time, every hang out began to require more planning and effort. It also became difficult for the two of us to spend time together in larger social groups, because we no longer knew the same people. Our friendship began to feel like a small island within the vast, churning sea of our broader lives.

When college came, this island sank under the waves. We initially bonded as freshmen over the shared newness and excitement of college, but as we began to find ourselves in completely different worlds, both socially and geographically, we invested less and less in the friendship.

Today, I’d consider us mere acquaintances; he’s no more than a weak tie.

Does the fact that we drifted apart mean that we failed to maintain an important friendship? Maybe. It’s possible that if each of us had invested more in the relationship, as the Ledbetter et al. study suggests, that we’d still be best friends, as inseparable as we were in middle school. But when I really think about it, I don’t believe that’s true. I think that the very same similarities and shared situational factors that brought us together in 6th grade are what drove us apart. We simply no longer have much in common, beyond a set of good memories.

A quote from a 2015 Atlantic article about friendships in adulthood succinctly sums up the way I feel about him. In the article, Julie Beck wrote, “A commemorative friend is not someone you expect to hear from, or see, maybe ever again. But they were important to you at an earlier time in your life, and you think of them fondly for that reason, and still consider them a friend.” (Beck, 2015)

Just as Beck wrote, I will always consider him a friend and have made peace with the commemorative place he holds in my life.

Texting and the Role of Social Media in Friendships (Lane)

Texting and social media seem to have improved the ease with which you can find, develop, and maintain relationships. While there is a lot of research discussing the mental health consequences of social media I will be focusing on social media’s impact on friendships. 

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According to an article on Forge by friendship expert Lydia Denworth (2020), the more media platforms we use to maintain a relationship, the stronger that bond is likely to be, and people who are more active on social media are less likely to be lonely than those who aren’t

While I’m not active on many social media platforms, my personal experience in group chats and facebook groups is in line with this. Digital mediums have certainly improved some of my friendships and helped me form some meaningful new connections. 

One of my primary concerns with texting and social media is that it can easily lead to miscommunication. Communication is 55% body language, 38% vocal, and only 7% words (Mehrabian, 1967) so texts present us much less information than we are used to to extrapolate meaning from. Especially with weak ties who you don’t share much interpersonal mindfulness with. On top of this, texting involves delayed responses, which can cause uncertainty and upset expectations. Pair both of these now with the fact that there is also more at stake — because digital interactions are easier to share and harder to erase — and texting seems like a recipe for more frequent and more damaging miscommunications between friends. I would guess that current adolescents and young adults cycle through more friends now than they did twenty years ago because so much more communication is through text and social media now.

In addition to being a worse form of communication I also dislike texting because it tends to drain me of energy, in line with an Atlantic article sharing that emotional satisfaction is the main thing we lose from maintaining relationships online (Beck, 2015). On several occasions I’ve felt overwhelmed with messages I need to respond to, which begs the question: at what point might too much digital interaction with friends have a negative — rather than positive — impact on our friendships? A lack of separation between work and home during the pandemic led to many burning out — can an inability to distance oneself from friends given that we always have our phones on us lead to a similar burn out or degradation of friendships? I think so, even if most of the messages are from strong ties. Because texting lacks the emotional satisfaction that phone calls or in-person interactions do, I feel like responding to texts is more akin to email than socializing. I much prefer calling people on the phone but social norms for college-age people today seem to favor text exchanges, especially between acquaintances.

Overall, texting and social media have the potential to have significantly positive impacts on our friendships and acquaintances. That being said, there are communicative and emotional sacrifices that need to be navigated effectively in order to maximize net benefits of utilizing these tools.

References:

  • Back, M., Schmukle, S., & Egloff, B. (2008). Becoming friends by chance. Psychological Science, 19(5), 439-440.
  • Beck, J. (2015). How friendships change in adulthood. The Atlantic.
  • Boothyby, E. J., Cooney, G., Sandstrom, G. M., & Clark, M. S. (2018). The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742–1756.
  • Denworth, L. (2020). Why the Digital Age Is Not Destroying Friendship. Forge.
  • Ledbetter, A. M., Griffin, E. M., & Sparks, G. G. (2007). Forecasting “friends forever”: A longitudinal investigation of sustained closeness between best friends. Personal Relationships, 14(2), 343-350.
  • Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of consulting psychology, 31(3), 248.
  • Parks, M. R., & Floyd, K. (1996). Meanings for closeness and intimacy in friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 13(1), 85-107.
  • Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910-922.

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Connected Yet Six Feet Apart: Acquaintances and Friendships During the Pandemic 

March 25th, 2022 · 19 Comments

Jess: A World Without Strangers

When we think about the people in our lives who we interact with on a daily basis, strangers rank low on the list. How often do the Starbucks barista who serves your coffee in the morning, the Uber driver who shuttles you and your group of friends into Boston, the student who holds the door open for you as you walk into class make lasting impressions in our memories? When such interactions are so frequent and menial compared to our deeper relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners, they become easy to disregard. However, what happens when we completely remove strangers from our lives? 

The start of the pandemic marks a striking period of time when the world had little to no interactions between strangers. Transitioning from life at Harvard to life confined in my home was difficult. Suddenly, the minute interactions with strangers I had overlooked before were gone. For months, there were no more tourists who asked me for directions in the Yard, T passengers to make small talk with about the weather, or any opportunity where I could merely occupy the same space as a group larger than my family. While I could call my friends on FaceTime, entertain myself with multiplayer video games, and consume vast amounts of time on social media, the lack of in-person interactions with strangers made something essential feel missing. The silence in my neighborhood was eerie.

A series of 2014 studies by Gilian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn address the importance of peripheral social interactions on well-being. Their experiments demonstrate how weak social ties contribute to our subjective social and emotional well-being. The researchers found that participants who had, on average, more weak tie interactions than others reported greater feelings of belonging. Furthermore, they also found that participants reported greater feelings of belonging on days when they interacted with more weak ties than usual (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014, p. 919). 

I found it particularly interesting to learn that the effect of additional weak ties on subjective well-being and belonging is stronger on days when people have fewer strong tie interactions than usual (p. 916). This would indicate that the negative effects of lacking weak tie interactions during the pandemic were especially magnified due to our likewise dwindling strong tie interactions. Indeed, as hard as I tried to maintain the close friendships I had developed at Harvard, it was difficult to feel as close to my friends as I did before. Over time, I noticed a growing apathy for scheduling FaceTime calls and increasing “Zoom fatigue” among my friends, which made it even more challenging to keep in touch. 

The Social Brain Hypothesis states that our cognitive temporal limitations place limits on human sociability (Perry, 2022, p. 30). During the height of the pandemic, it seemed that our already limited social resources had somehow shrunk to only accommodate a handful of strong ties we had the energy to maintain throughout isolation. Truthfully, I was most successful in maintaining only one to two of my closest friendships during the pandemic and lost touch with most others. Because I had less strong ties than usual, my world without strangers felt even more discomforting.

An Atlantic article by Joe Keohane echoes the benefit of interacting with strangers. “Again and again, studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic,” the author writes (Keohane, 2021).  Although my personal discomfort in isolation prompted me to flock back to making weak tie social connections when possible — even if it meant just a short conversation with my neighbor six feet apart as we walked our dogs — Keohane noticed that the pandemic produced an opposite effect in others. Despite findings that weak tie interactions benefit well-being, many people still maintain a “stranger danger” mentality, “especially after the coronavirus pandemic limited our social lives so severely.” These observations suggest that perhaps some find greater comfort in silence and solace in stillness than I did. 

Furthermore, perhaps even more lie in between. As noted by Keohane, Sandstrom believed that people simply didn’t know how to talk to strangers and fill silence; once they did, they found it similarly as essential and rewarding as studies indicate. Thus, it is important to realize that there are both differences in how people seek out weak tie interactions, as well as barriers that might prevent people to do so, in order to better support our overall social and emotional well-being — even in times of extreme isolation like the pandemic. 

 

Arlo: Post-Pandemic Social Fatigue

Jess discusses the often overlooked value and power of weak ties in our daily lives, and how this became quite apparent during the most isolated parts of the pandemic. During isolation, I realized that a really important weak tie interaction in my life was saying hi to various acquaintances while walking through campus. Every day on my walk to class I would see a couple of people I knew, ranging from closer friends to people I’ve only talked to once or so. These interactions are often quite brief, maybe just a wave or a little flare of chatter.  While these interactions, similarly to most other weak tie interactions, don’t seem that important at first glance, I’ve come to realize how much these little greetings actually lift me up. For me these interactions seem to somewhat subconsciously put me into a positive and lighter state; they feel like belonging, like I’m being slightly held up by all these people and they care, not just about me but about the world, and this would often feel motivating. I think it also gives me some sort of sense of being a part of something, which is comforting.

Once the pandemic hit, it was at first quite rare that I would have that same feeling. Many of us went for at least a couple of weeks only interacting with a small set of people, often family or friends we were already quite close with. Similar to Jess, I feel like I was able to maintain just a few friendships throughout the pandemic to the extent of closeness that we had before the pandemic. These were particularly people I lived with or was in a tight circle with. Within these specific relationships, there reached a point where we as friends became closer than we had ever been before. After spending so much time together, our social dynamic felt quite deepened and somewhat raw. Yet I also felt that my general social capacity was lowering. With little new social interactions, my time was spent more and more on hobbies and other interests, creating an increasing sense of social fatigue. After isolation, I found that my capacity for general social interaction had decreased. I used to choose hanging out with friends over pretty much any activity, but now I often find myself wanting to stay in and work on music or watch a movie over going out. 

This change in social pace made me think about my parents and their social interaction with friends. For a while, I’ve always wondered why my parents don’t socialize that much in general, apart from the occasional dinners with friends or a book club meeting. At first, I thought it was just my parents but it seems like it is quite common. In an article from The Atlantic entitled ‘How Friendships Change in Adulthood’, the author Julie Beck describes, “As people enter middle age, they tend to have more demands on their time, many of them more pressing than friendship. After all, it’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip. The ideal of people’s expectations for friendship is always in tension with the reality of their lives, Rawlins says.” While this definitely applies to my parents and their friends, it seems as if the pandemic has accelerated me into this a bit as well. When I think back to Freshman year, it was much more common for me to just hang out in a dorm room and talk with someone. These days much more of my socializing is at a meal or a party (aside from quite close friends and roommates). I’ve tended to categorize socializing into a more specific time frame, placing it as less spur of the moment and sometimes less valuable as maybe another activity in the day. As I get older I hope to still maintain at least some level of curiosity and spontaneity in various socialization.

 

References

Beck, J. (2015, October 2022). How friendships change in adulthood. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/how-friendships-change-over-time-in-adulthood/411466/ 

Keohane, J. (2021, August 4). The Surprising Benefits of Talking to Strangers. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/08/why-we-should-talk-strangers-more/619642/ 

Perry, J. (2022). Acquaintances & Friends [lecture]. Department of Psychology, Harvard University.

Sandstrom, G. M. & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(5), 910-922. 

 

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The Power Of Society’s Most Underappreciated Relationship

March 25th, 2022 · 18 Comments

This week, our class considered “friendship” in its broadest possible terms. We talked about connections so transient that one party never learns the other’s name—but we also talked about how to make deep friendships last a lifetime, and about what makes relationships easy or difficult. To capture our entire week’s worth of content, we (your blog post writers) each focused on a different tier of friendship. Stephanie wrote about weak ties, Esther wrote about the importance of connection, and Iris wrote about individual differences in friendship. Thanks for reading!

Stephanie (weak ties):

As important as our close friendships are, weak ties also have many important benefits and play an important role in our wellbeing.​​ Think about the person that always holds the door open for you before class or maybe the Black Sheep worker that knows your order by heart. Those people, even though you might only just know their name, are an important part of your daily life and have an effect on your need to belong. As we learned in the lecturette, people with more weak ties and acquaintances have greater creativity, perspective taking, empathic accuracy and well being.  

In the reading by Sandstrom & Dunn (2014), there is evidence that proves how weak ties have important benefits such as the diffusion of information. The study shows how people who interacted with more classmates reported greater happiness. I definitely agree with that and feel that on days where I have a lot of class, even though I am more busy I feel happier to be around people as opposed to just sitting around in my room alone. The paper extends to show how with more daily interactions with weak ties, people are happier and experience greater feelings of belonging. Overall, we find that people in general feel a greater sense of belonging with more weak ties. 

More personally, I can think of certain weak ties in my life that create a sense of normalcy as well as always put a smile on my face. One in particular, is a HUDS employee who I see every day at dinner time. Without fail, we say hello to each other every day and as how the other’s day has been. Sometimes we catch up about each other’s breaks or weekends as well as upcoming events in the house. Even though I would not consider her to be a close friend of mine, I definitely rely and always count on that relationship to always put a smile on my face. Another acquaintance that I interact with daily is somebody that I often see in the dining hall. Even though we just met this year, I feel I am always greeted with a big smile and we sometimes sit together to have a meal. While it is not somebody that I interact with often, he is definitely someone that is part of my daily routine that I can learn a lot from. 

However, the concept of weak ties was especially hard during COVID, when we were unable to leave our houses and interact in our normal ways. It was a strange shift to go from seeing many people in a day to only seeing faces over zoom classes. However, even so, I also found ways to create weak ties, like waving and talking to people in the neighborhood when I would go on my daily walks. Therefore no matter the setting or circumstances, interacting with different people can not only expand your relationships of weak ties, but can also lead you to create more friendships. Whether it is one thing that connects you to someone else or a shared experience you are a part of, weak ties are integral to our lives. 

Esther (importance of ties):

“You’re my person.”

“My person” made its first appearance in 2005 on “Grey’s Anatomy,” showcasing Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey’s intimate friendship. The term’s charm is that it isn’t defined by blood or law. Your person is your best soul friend, ride or die, platonic life partner. They might stay the same or change. The phrase was coined when it became evident that millennials put off marriage to focus on their friendships and professions. Despite these changes, the notion that a monogamous love partnership is the planet around which all other relationships should revolve hasn’t changed. We need a phrase for the humans who show up for us as Cristina and Meredith do for each other until there is a life partner in the picture, or even if there never is.

Despite their importance, friendships are understudied compared to other intimate relationships, while romantic relationships have gotten a lot more attention. (Pratscher et al., 2018).

Active friendships require active maintenance. You get to sit back, do nothing, and enjoy the benefits of a meaningful relationship. But action is especially important to friendship which carries no familiar expectations. If you don’t take action to mark it as important and keep it alive, a friendship will not survive. However, placing a friendship at the center of one’s life unsettles the norm (Cohen, 2020). I want a world where friendship is appreciated more. I want holidays to commemorate friendship. I want thousands of songs, movies, and poems about the intimacy and connection between friends. 

Harvard can be a lonely place. It can feel like standing in the middle of a crowded intersection with everyone around you and no one around you at the same time. The loneliness can be crippling and suffocating. I often invalidate my own feelings, especially when I’m not as “smiley” as people usually think I am. Despite advice that I give to others, I find myself feeling that I don’t “deserve” to be upset – to feel what I feel – because my problems will only burden others for the worse if I share them with them. 

Ultimately, people will notice that there is more to you than you let on. They will look at you closely and listen to you attentively enough to know that there are stories hidden in your bones that you’ve never told anyone. Such people will ask you about things that others never made an effort to understand. They will come to value who you are because they will take the time to really know your story. Sometimes souls instantly click. Some friendships allow us to feel safe like home. These bonds are special and last forever no matter what city you live in or how often you talk. I’m forever grateful for the people in my life who know this side of me and offer me encouragement, support, and an outlet to express myself. They let me feel that it’s okay to not be okay and to let down my facade at times. So, if you ever see me on campus, feel free to say hi – I promise you it will make me happier than I already am! 🙂

Iris (lack of ties):

In the toddler class I teach this year, I have an autistic kid whom I’ll call F. F is adored by all the grown-ups in his life, I assume because he’s unusually adorable. In addition to winning people over with his goofy laugh and enthusiastic opinions, his favorite toy is a plush egg, which, how could anyone not fall for that? One of my co-teachers just bought a bubble gun solely because it made F. smile. His fan club includes most of the adults who’ve ever met him. 

F. struggles to communicate with his peers, however, and the biggest fear I have for him is that as a nonverbal person, he’ll have a hard time making friends. One can (and activists rightfully do) blame an unjust society for its lack of acceptance—but even if the deficit lies with the world and not with F., the result is the same. I don’t want him to be lonely. The readings this week were somewhat damning for folks like F. McPherson et al.’s “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks” (2001) compiles evidence suggesting that similarity undergirds friendship; F.’s brain works in a demonstrably different way than his peers’. Pratscher et al.’s “Interpersonal Mindfulness” (2017) puts stock in our ability to take others’ perspectives; F. is specifically bad at basic theory-of-mind tasks. It would be easy to look at F., as many have, and write off his ability to form social relationships. In general, our readings this week support that narrative.

And yet. I wonder, when I think about F. and his future, if my neurotypical frame of reference is capable of comprehending how he wants to relate to others. Does my conceptualization of friendship—informed by studies of college students who are likely, in aggregate, neurotypical—pertain to his experience of the world? What if he doesn’t want friends the way I want friends for him? Who am I to tell anyone that they are socially suffering? While I did the readings this week, I couldn’t get past the lingering thought—influenced by F.—that these studies leave people out. It is notoriously easy to nitpick psychology research, but the examples of exclusion are endless: disabled folks. People from non-western countries. Older adults or younger children. It is not obvious that these data on college students are applicable to other types of humans. 

Accordingly, while neurodiversity represents a specific case, I find the question of group differences in friendship attitudes to be more broadly interesting. Proximity may be useful, except when it isn’t; weak ties could be helpful unless, like F., your discomfort around strangers supersedes any benefit. I understand the impossibility of designing a perfect study, and the utility of studying something anyway. But I also think—at least when considering how I personally define a friend—that it is at least as important to remember marginal experiences as it is to attend to the dominant narratives we promote around friendship.

References 

Cohen, R. (2020). What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life? The Atlantic.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 415–444.

Pratscher, S. D., Rose, A. J., Markovitz, L., & Bettencourt (2018). Interpersonal mindfulness: Investigating mindfulness in interpersonal interactions, co-rumination, and friendship quality. Mindfulness, 9(4), 1206-1215.

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910-922. 

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Empathy Blog Post

March 4th, 2022 · 21 Comments

Tom’s Blog: Importance of Empathy in Social Connection

Empathy plays an important role in human’s ability to form and maintain meaningful social bonds. Being empathetic means being able to understand the emotions of another person, especially when these emotions are not outwardly expressed. In most cases, empathy means being able to put oneself into someone else’s perspective to figure out what emotions or thoughts they may be experiencing. Trying to decipher another person’s inner emotions comes from being attentive to little things such as their tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, or other verbal and non-verbal social cues. Being attentive to these aspects of communication can help one be more selfless and altruistic which is supported by the Pickett et al. (2004) study. The experimenters state in their introduction, “Empathy is motivated by our desire to connect with others, and when we experience it, it can lead us to be kind, compassionate, and altruistic.” In their study, they address the question of whether someone’s need to belong affects how empathetic that person is in social situations. Through their three experiments, they found that when someone is in a situation where they have a social pressure to belong or fit in, they are more attentive to social cues, specifically tone of voice and facial expressions. 

I personally noticed that this was evident during the beginning of Freshman year at Harvard. During the days of orientation, everyone was very social and tried to form lasting social bonds. The pressure of finding a friend group is something that makes everyone at least a little bit anxious. I remember during these nerve-wracking times, everyone was very attentive and engaged in individual conversations, more so than usual. I personally remember being obsessed with thinking of what others think of me when having conversations with new people. While meeting new people early Freshman year, I found myself looking for small details in people’s social cues. For instance, if someone looked away while I was talking with them, I would think that they may not be interested in the conversation. Conversely, if someone was laughing/smiling and holding eye contact while talking, I would be focused on the fact that they are interested. I also experienced a similar situation when first meeting my football teammates during the pre-season of Freshman year. Even though myself and my 30 other Freshman teammates have some similarities, it was still slightly nerve-wracking to form social bonds with them Freshman year. Especially since we are teammates, there is a pressure to get along and be friends with everyone. Because of this, I was also very focused on small social cues when talking with my fellow teammates. In accordance with the Prickett et al. study, I believe that since I and everyone else during Freshman year had a pressure to belong or fit in, that people were very attentive to social cues and had an increased sense of social empathy. 

In addition to the study by Pricket et al., Chow et al. studied if an increased sense of empathy helps adolescents and young adults form long-lasting social connections and have an increased sense of “interpersonal competence”. They found that when someone has empathy and can share another’s feelings, they are more likely to have a strong sense of interpersonal competence which promotes healthier relationships. Personally, I have noticed that when I am able to think of how others are feeling, it is easier to form social relationships. Specifically, I noticed this was the case when trying to form a bond with my girlfriend’s brother named Mike. Mike is 17 and has high-functioning autism. He struggles with communication and has a limited vocabulary, so it is often difficult for him to tell others what exactly he is feeling. Because of this, it was difficult to originally form a connection with him, and I really had to focus on his tone of voice, pace of speaking, eye contact, and facial expressions when interpreting what he is feeling. Mike has a great sense of empathy and often only tells people what they want to hear in response to people’s questions, for example, he will never say anything negative about anyone or anything even if he did have an unpleasant experience. After meeting him a few times and paying closer attention to his social cues, I was able to form a good relationship with him and have more meaningful conversations. Trying to put myself in his perspective and see how he may be feeling definitely helped me communicate and form a bond with him.

Patrick’s Blog: Is Empathy Always Good?

When thinking back on strong emotions that I’ve felt through empathy, one moment in particular from my childhood stands out. I was in eighth grade, and was cheering for my brother with my family as he raced in the finals of the 1600 meter track and field event. It was one of the most important races of the season for him, as the top 3 finishers would qualify for the California State Track meet. The race started off promisingly, and after the first two laps of the race, my brother was among the lead pack, comfortably slotted into second place. However, as he rounded the curve to start the third lap, I heard a shout of despair from my dad. As I looked back onto the track, I realized that my brother’s legs had gotten tangled with another runner, and he had tumbled to the ground in a heap. A few crucial seconds passed before he was able to recover, leap to his feet, and rejoin the race. Miraculously, he was able to catch up to the lead pack and regain his position. But he had lost too much time and exerted too much energy trying to recover, and I watched excruciatingly, as runners eventually began to pass him as he slowly faded out of contention for a top three finish.

After the race had ended, my family drove to Chick-Fil-A, a post-meet tradition of ours. But instead of the usual post-meet celebration I had grown accustomed to, I instead watched as my brother sobbed in disappointment from across the table, with my parents trying, but failing to console him. Unable to find any words to comfort him, I sat in silence, feeling his disappointment and sadness, before realizing that tears were also running down my face. 

Empathy gives us the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Through empathy, we can feel both the positive and negative emotions of other beings. Crucially though, we care most about people who are similar to us, in attitude, language, appearance. While this ability to feel the emotions of others is useful in helping us to form and maintain connections with close friends and family, using empathy to guide decision-making can be problematic. 

One way in which empathy can prove to be an issue is when looking at altruistic acts. Frans de Wall posits that humans have evolved to develop altruistic motivations through an empathic mechanism (De Wall, 2008). Yet, we can see inconsistencies in the results of exercising this empathic mechanism. As an experiment, C. Daniel Batson and his colleagues conducted an experiment where they told subjects about Sheri Summers, a ten-year-old girl who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for treatment to relieve her pain (Batson, 1995). Participants were told that they could move her to the front of the line, at the cost of another child not getting treatment. When only given details of the situation, most participants said Sheri should wait her turn. However, when first asked to imagine Sheri’s pain, they tended to move Sheri up in line. Thus, this is a case where empathy overcame our sense of fairness, and increased the suffering for others. While this hypothetical situation may seem unrealistic, it’s not hard to imagine replacing Sheri with a sibling or a close friend, and seeing how feeling the pain of those close to us would influence us to make irrational decisions.

Paul Bloom additionally argues that empathy is particularly insensitive when applied on a statistical level, rather than an individual one (Bloom, 2018). He gives an example by highlighting the Make-a-Wish foundation, an organization that grants the wishes of critically ill children. Bloom states that it costs an average of $7000 to grant a wish. Yet, he counters by saying that using the same amount of money to purchase malaria nets could, on average, save the lives of 3 children. Upon hearing the emotionally affecting story of a Make-a-Wish recipient, we are more inclined to publicize and donate to the foundation, eschewing the opportunity to save the lives of a greater number of people. 

While being labeled as an empathetic person is seen as a virtue, it is important to understand the biases that can come with solely relying on empathic impulses to make decisions. Only through empathy, am I able to cheer for my brother’s successes and support him and cry with him through his hardships. However, through that same emotional pathway, I am more prone to be emotionally influenced into making irrational choices. Realizing that relying on empathy can have both positive and negative outcomes is crucial in helping us to form stronger social connections, and become altruistic in a virtuous and unbiased way.

References

Batson, C. D., Klein, T. R., Highberger, L., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(6), 1042–1054

Bloom, Paul (2018) Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Vintage.

Chow, C. M., Ruhl, H., & Buhrmester, D. (2013). The mediating role of interpersonal competence between adolescents’ empathy and friendship quality: A dyadic approach. Journal of Adolescence, 36(1), 191–200.

De Waal, F. B. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279-300

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a cue: The need to belong and enhanced sensitivity to social cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1095 – 1107. 

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To Empathize, or Not to Empathize

March 4th, 2022 · 23 Comments

Andrea: Friends

“fyi i know we got lunch yesterday so i wanted to lyk [let you know] i tested positive today”

“Did y’all know [friend] tested positive too?”

“yoooo it finally happened i tested positive too :/”

In the last week, as COVID cases around Harvard rise, the texts I receive directly or in group chats with friends have looked like some variation of the above. Yet after an initial expression of concern, it seems that getting sick has become a bonding moment, a shared experience as my sick friends make their own group chats (with names such as “covid cuties”)  and talk about what they’re up to in quarantine. In times of stress, it is fascinating how “suffering together” can actually inspire joy amongst friends—a phenomenon we have thanks to empathy.

When we think of empathy, the first thing that often comes to mind is an elementary-school definition of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. As simple as this is, however, it provides a helpful heuristic on what it actually refers to: “the capacity to be (a) affected by the emotional state of another, (b) assess the reasons for the other’s state, and (c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective” (De Waal, 2008). While this may sound complicated, the underlying idea is the same—we empathize when we consider the situations those around us are facing and feel the same emotional impact that they do.

Thinking back to our lecture that broke down empathy into mentalization, imitation, and origin monitoring, it’s likely to no one’s surprise that empathy seems much easier to practice when it’s with our friends. After all, these are people we want to like anyway, and by that logic, that would entail we try our best to engage in these sorts of pro-social behavior. Mentalizing comes much easier when we have an idea of how our friends think, or what they think about, and imitation is more natural given that it is also more practiced with the friends we spend time with.

It is interesting to note, then, that when it comes to our friends, it may seem like we’re already “in”—but it is the times when we feel left out that our empathy-attuned behavior shines through. This pattern is remarkable in the context of friends: given that these are people you care about, you have a point of contrast for what being “in” the group shouldn’t feel like. Motivated by this, you’d have a higher desire for social connection, and this is exactly what is shown in the studies by Pickett et al. (2004): one key finding was that individual differences in the need to belong was positively correlated with accuracy in detecting vocal tone and facial emotion, both of which are critical for understanding other human beings and thus establishing a real bond.

Students at Harvard can unite over many shared experiences: the stress of blocking and nerves of Housing Day, the joy of winning at Harvard-Yale, the sadness when we were asked to leave campus in March 2020. It is with our friends in particular, however, that we want to put in the extra effort to figure out what they are feeling and then in turn, feel with them. It is part of our natural instinct to preserve these relationships and our sense of belonging within social groups. More personally, it is thanks to empathic friends that I always have someone to celebrate with, rant to, or cry on their shoulder. Empathy makes friendship a truly beautiful thing.

Georgia: Strangers

While it may seem natural that we have an abundance of empathy for our friends and even readily meet acquaintances with empathy, how do strangers fit in?

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine still raging, many of us have been feeling deep empathy for Ukrainians watching their homes burnt to the ground, family members go off to battle, and loved ones flee their nation. Seeing videos and reading articles about devastation thousands of miles away from us makes us feel deep sorrow, pain, or even anger on behalf of Ukrainians. But, while it certainly serves us to feel empathy for those close to us, with whom we feel a stronger need to belong and interact with regularly (Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles, 2004), why should we feel this way towards total strangers? Moreover, some research indicates that we may have developed a mechanism for schadenfreude, a feeling of pleasure in the misfortunes of others, particularly when they are a member of a rival-outgroup (Cikara, Botvinick, & Fiske, 2011).

De Waal (2008) argues that this form of empathy may be the evolutionary mechanism for altruism, a selfless concern for others and their well-being. Intuitively, this makes sense. For us to be able to work together in larger groups, we need to be able to cooperate with people who we might not know well, and empathy serves as a bridge allowing us to better understand others. Even today, empathizing with people you will never meet helps inspire donations to hurricane relief, humanitarian aid, and food pantry donations, collective efforts that help make our society better by uplifting people that could not be accomplished without empathy motivating individual actions. Moreover, we do not expect these acts of goodwill to ever directly benefit us. 

But if it serves humankind to feel empathy for strangers then why don’t we feel empathetic all the time? For one, we have a finite amount of cognitive resources, and feeling empathetic for each starving child in the world all the time would absolutely overwhelm us to the extent that we would never be able to get anything done. Thus, we often protect ourselves from those overwhelmingly negative feelings by either refusing to engage with bad news behalling other people altogether (much like closing your eyes when someone’s about to be stabbed in a movie) or even by engaging in dehumanization. And as the number of people a tragedy affects gets larger, the amount of empathy we have for the people affected dwindles. It doesn’t make us horrible people to not be downtrodden about all the horrible things going on around the world all the time, it’s just our way of protecting ourselves from a kind of empathy burnout. 

Politicians and journalists surely know this, which is why they bring our attention to individuals rather than statistics. Presented with the story of one Californian who lost everything in the wildfires last year we may be inspired to donate or feel compelled to lobby for better preventative measures. Presented with massive statistics, we’ll often change the channel.

Julia: Fictional characters

Can we feel empathy for fictional characters? I recall a time quite recently where I decided to watch the newest version of Little Women on a flight and upon reaching a certain scene in the film (I won’t give any spoilers) had to control the urge to sob, but nonetheless I was crying. After getting some concerned looks from the stranger next to me, I tried to remind myself that it was just a movie, however I could not help but feel the loss that all these fictional characters were feeling. This example and the countless other times I have felt embarrassed for a character in a TV show or felt happy for a character in a book have made me curious about whether these instances are examples of empathy.

Despite fictional characters essentially being made up strangers with no relation to us, we perceive these characters to be real human beings and likely can still experience their state as our own. Zaki (2014) breaks down the components of empathy into: experience sharing which can describe our tendency to take on the affective state of another, mentalizing which describes our ability to infer how another person would think or feel in a certain situation, and mind perception. If we can “turn up” or “turn down” these empathetic processes, we may be more inclined to mentalize while watching a film or reading a book because we want to understand the internal state of the characters (Zaki, 2014). We discuss our ability to empathize with others and whether or not this is something we have control over. De Waal (2008) suggests that humans have such little control over empathic activation, and that is why one would shut their eyes during a movie when you anticipate that something bad is about to happen. We do not want to feel the terror that character is feeling, despite knowing that it is a fictional depiction.

In this week’s lecturette, we learned that social group membership is a reason we may be motivated to feel more or less empathy for an individual. The intergroup empathy bias would suggest that we would empathize more with in-group members compared to out-group members (Cikara et al., 2o14). In a fictional world there still remain in-groups and out-groups. One may be more likely to empathize with a character that they share similarities with. Think of the most hated evil characters, like Joffrey from Game of Thrones or Voldemort from Harry Potter. Those are characters that we are likely to perceive as out-group and we typically experience pleasure from their pain. However, some villains become more complex when writers attempt to humanize these characters by giving backstory to explain where their actions and beliefs come from. It seems that writers have the power to decide who the audience will empathize with by the amount that you are able to mentalize a character and the amount of emotion sharing a character portrays, in addition to whether this character is considered in-group or out-group.

Empathy is an incredibly powerful tool to unite us with friends, strangers, and even fictional characters. It motivates us to contribute to the common good and inspires us to treat others with more kindness than we otherwise might. However, empathy is not ubiquitous, as wonderfully automatic as it may be our minds often protect us from fully empathizing with everyone else. It’s up to us to tread the line between too much empathy and not enough as we try to be the best versions of ourselves we can.

 

References

Cikara, M., Botvinick, M. M., & Fiske, S. T. (2011). Us versus them: Social identity shapes neural responses to intergroup competition and harm. Psychological Science, 22(3), 306-313.

Cikara, M., Bruneau, E., Van Bavel, J. J., & Saxe, R. (2014). Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 110–125. 

De Waal, F. B. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279-300.

Gerwig, G., et al. (2020). Little women. [Blu-ray edition] Culver City, California: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Martin, George R. R. (1996). A game of thrones. New York :Bantam Books.

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a cue: The need to belong and enhanced sensitivity to social cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1095 – 1107.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone. Scholastic.

Zaki, J. (2014). Empathy: A motivated account. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1608.

 

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The Case for Empathy

March 4th, 2022 · 19 Comments

This week, we read about psychologist Paul Bloom’s argument Against Empathy in moral reasoning because it’s biased towards people like us. Though he made many good points, we still believe there are many situations where empathy is essential. In the following blog post, we’ll explore how empathy enables us to effectively help friends struggling with depression (or just had a bad day) and to stand up to bullies and we’ll finish with a call for more empathy in everyday circumstances.

[Summer]
Case 1: How to Save a Life?

“How to Save a Life” by The Frayer is the band’s biggest hit so far. First popularized by medical dramas like Gray’s Anatomy, it saw a resurgence on Tiktok in the ongoing pandemic.

Since its release in 2006, it has moved millions of people (myself included) to tears as we empathize with its poignant and emotional lyrics and literally feel the frustration, despair, guilt, sadness etc. along with the singer.

This song always reminds me of my experience trying to help a friend who struggled with depression. Often, I find it hard to get through to my friend, to slip past their defense and often ask myself: “Where did I go wrong?” “How to save a life?”

After reading this week’s reading, I’ve started to think that one possible answer to this question is the secret to this song’s popularity – Empathy.

Psychologists identified three central components of empathy:
1. Mind Perception: the ability to identify another person’s mind and to know it’s different from our own
2. Mentalizing: the ability to understand others’ emotions, beliefs and intentions; taking their perspective
3. Emotion Sharing: the ability to feel the emotions others feel

(Da Waal 2008; Zaki, 2014)

With this framework, I noticed for a song that evokes so much empathy, how unempathetic the singer’s response is. Though he acknowledges that “he” has a mind different from his own, he doesn’t seem to mentalize with “him”. Throughout the song, he speaks in a strikingly rational and detached manner: “Let him know that you know best”, “Lay down a list of what is wrong”, “grant him one last choice”. Furthermore, the strong emotions in “What did I do wrong?” and “How to save a life?” mostly come from the singer’s perspective and are not shared by “him”. The singer doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the sadness, confusion, anger etc. “he” must feel. His “polite” manner seems almost unintentionally dehumanizing to me.

In the 2016 paper, Castro and Zautra explained that people often learn patterns of relating to others through imitation of role models. Thus, if the singer addresses “him” in a “dehumanizing” manner, “he” is more likely to reflect this dehumanizing view and be distrustful. On the other hand, they found that if people learn to “humanize” others as people with goals and emotions, they will perceive more “choice” in their actions, be more intentional with their social interactions, become more able to maintain healthy and meaningful relationships and be more resilient when facing challenging negative emotions (Castro & Zautra, 2016).

Perhaps if instead of analyzing the problem and telling the boy what to do, the singer had provided an empathetic response and had connected with “him” on an emotional level, he would have more easily slipped past “his” defenses to help “him” find “his” own solution and motivation to make a change. And maybe this way, he could have saved a life.

Of course, in many situations, empathy alone is not enough to save a life, but I believe it’s always a good start.

[Lake]
Case 2: How to Stand Up to a Bully?

Empathy not only enables us to provide emotional support but also prompts us to stand up for a friend in need.

Let’s travel back in time to elementary school when I first remember empathy being prominent in me. I was on my daily school bus ride home from school, however, this time our schools’ bully started acting out. He was a 5th grader and we were 3rd graders, the perfect case for him to pick on someone he felt power over. He first moved into the seat across from me where a schoolmate was sitting and started to harass him. Sitting there and listening to this, I began to put myself in his shoes and try to understand how I would be feeling if I was getting bullied – which I’ve experienced as the new kid. Following the verbal assault, he (the bully) slapped my classmate across the face. Instinctively, I stood up to help, to which the bully asked the infamous “what are you going to do about it?”. So, I punched him straight in the nose.
According to De Waal’s thesis, “empathy evolved in animals as the main proximate mechanism for directed altruism.” (De Waal, F.B., 2008). My act- punching the bully in the face, is a prime example of altruism: the desire to help another person without self-interest, even if it involves a cost to the helper. I punched the bully knowing that I would get in trouble (I did until my principal decided not to punish me after hearing the full story). At the time of the event, it was instinctive. The thought of getting in trouble did not cross my mind, since I was only thinking about helping my schoolmate.

It was this experience, feeling what it felt like to help my classmate in this horrible situation, that made me consciously try to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, placing oneself in another’s position. I credit this empathetic act to my parents; they are beyond supportive and made me feel secure. There is no doubt that strong relationship between a child and their parents gives the child greater empathy for their peers. My parents have the greatest sense of empathy toward me. The study from Hepach et al., (2012) found that the intrinsic motivation for young children’s (2 years old) helping behavior does not require that they perform the behavior themselves and thus “get credit” for it, but rather requires only that the other person is helped. Thus, young children are intrinsically motivated to see others helped. My parents are very empathetic and have always had a desire to help, constantly doing things to give back in any way. From Hepach et al., (2012), seeing my parents helping others when I was a young child without a doubt played a role in my empathetic values/nature.

[Michael]
Case 3: How to Make Someone’s Day?

Summer wrote of helping a friend with depression, and Lake of standing up to a bully. These are important situations that greatly require us to act with empathy. Such important situations, in fact, that we’ll likely feel guilty about the situation after if we do not help. We know these situations call for our aid, and it’s the moral thing to do.

But what about more casual situations? Those everyday situations in which we walk past CVS and know we could make a friend’s day if we bought them a little card for $2, but we don’t. Or when we know we could see our parents light up with happiness if we just FaceTimed them for 10 minutes, but we don’t. Or we could give that homeless person $5 and allow them to have a hot drink in the winter, but we don’t. You get the picture.

Many of us don’t do these little acts of empathy, even though they ask very little of us, and we know they would really make someone’s day. My part of this blog is aimed at convincing you to do them more often.

We’ll start with empirical research. Whillans et al. (2016) found that spending money on others improves cardiovascular health. As in, buying someone a small gift not only makes their day but also improves your heart health. So, every day when you walk past CVS and don’t buy your friend those on-sale post-Valentine’s Day chocolates, you’re not only missing an opportunity to put a smile on their face, but you’re missing an opportunity to improve your own heart. Doesn’t that make you want to spend the $5 now?

More empirical research, you ask? I’ve got it for you. Dunn et al. (2008) found that spending money on others makes people happier than spending money on themselves. So now you know that completing that little empathetic act not only makes the other person happy, but it’s also going to make you happier than spending that same money on yourself.

While we all want to find ourselves in those rare situations where we act courageously, and save the day, like punching a bully in the face, those situations don’t happen every day. But we can still be empathetic in the situations that happen every day — and oftentimes it might be even harder in these situations to show empathy. Yet, research shows just how beneficial being empathetic in these little moments can improve both our physical and emotional health (and make someone’s day!). So, I hope reading this inspired you to be just a little better friend, or boy/girlfriend, or simply, person. Go buy that Valentine’s Day chocolate while it’s still on-sale.

References
Castro, & Zautra, A. J. (2016). Humanization of Social Relations: Nourishing

Health and Resilience Through Greater Humanity. Journal of Theoretical

and Philosophical Psychology, 36(2), 64–80.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others

promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687–1688.

Hepach, R., Vaish, A., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Young children are intrinsically

motivated to see others helped. Psychological Science, 23(9), 967–972.

The Fray.(n.d). How to Save a Life (Official Video). (n.d.). Retrieved March 1,

2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjVQ36NhbMk

Whillans, A. V., Dunn, E. W., Sandstrom, G. M., Dickerson, S. S., & Madden,

K. M. (2016). Is spending money on others good for your heart? Health Psychology, 35(6), 574-583.

Zaki, J. (2014). Empathy: A motivated account. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6),

1608.

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