• Poverty of Empathy and Smartphone Overuse

    This month I’ve been spending a lot of time combing through every available research paper investigating what over-use of technology might be doing to human brains. Concurrently, I’ve been reading a little bit of Steven Pinker’s awesome Better Angels of Our Nature in the bath for an hour each morning. The former is very much in its infancy and so this ever-expanding body of literature remains a bit patchy but giving strong hints of what’s to come when the trickle turns into a torrent. The latter enjoys a much sturdier footing, making a compelling argument that, despite the pervading sense of doom that seems to convince many that humanity is going to the dogs, in fact we’ve never had it so good.

    The odds of coming to violent death used to be extremely high for humans back in our caveman days (where the archaeological record comes in very handy) and has declined steadily since historical records documented human deaths. These days we are statistically very unlikely to meet a violent end compared to our ancestors who struggled through the previous bloody centuries. While the various conflicts that raged throughout much of the early 20th century might have seemed unprecedented – a crescendo of human suffering – when deaths from bloody conflicts are measured as a proportion of the total population, several wars from earlier centuries of the past two millennia were just as deadly.

    One of the best ways to stumble on new concepts and dream up new ideas… in the bath

    The seemingly miraculous process of pacification that resulted in the Long Peace that we’re currently enjoying has been attributed to several factors. One was that we started cooperating in larger and larger groups with a level of organisation offering protection from aggressors and the stability that comes from intertwining neighbouring nation’s best interests so that it is more profitable to trade than raid.

    As humans moved away from the historically common arrangement of living in small groups – each with several rival neighbouring collectives with whom competition over resources led to conflict on a regular basis – to a smaller number of larger groups, we gradually became less and less likely to die at the hands, blades or bullets of a bellicose foe. But while the lion’s share of the pacification process was the development of stable states that not only created laws but also had the power and inclination to enforce them, another surprisingly influential part of the overall process has been attributed to the emergence of etiquette.

    Etiquette may seem pointless, but it actually helped us gain control over our base impulses

    Once success depended not on who was the most murderous and belligerent warlord, but on who could curry favour with whoever was the most powerful person in the land – whether king, emperor or otherwise – there was suddenly a pressure to rein in the primal impulses that previously governed human behaviour, rather than allowing them to reign supreme. Essentially, for the first time in the history of our species, to get the best for you and yours, rather than being a fearsome warrior capable of conquering all foes, you instead had to be able to mingle with courtiers. As courtiers had a distinct tendency to go to great lengths to distance themselves from the unwashed masses, their habits became more and more refined. And anyone who wanted to get on with those who held the power had to follow suit, or risk being ejected from the corridors of power.

    The received wisdom that began circulating from the Middle
    Ages onwards regarding best practices in comportment essentially boiled down to
    developing superior capacities for various aspects of self-control. Pinker
    distils this down to the following five:

    “Control your
    appetites; Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don’t act
    like a peasant; Distance yourself from your animal nature”

    This could lead to a poverty of empathy

    This particular passage really struck me because that same week I had been reading all the academic research on the cognitive impacts of smartphone overuse. While the never-ending flow of scaremongering headlines and (mostly speculative) popular science books about the perils posed by overuse of smartphones, the internet and screens in general might have led people to suspect the worse, the hard evidence is surprisingly thin on the ground. That said, two findings are supported by a growing body of data:

    Firstly, overuse of smartphones makes our natural inclination towards immediate gratification even worse – in other words, it makes us more impatient: our tendency to go for a smaller short term gain over a larger benefit later on gets even worse!

    Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, using smartphones while doing other tasks like watching TV, surfing the internet etc (media multitasking) is strongly associated with a diminished capacity for perspective taking. In other words when a person is juggling their attention between their smartphone and other forms of technology, they become less capable of empathy: putting themselves in other people’s shoes.

    Perspective taking is a vital part of civilised culture; it is eroded by media multitasking

    It’s a common sight these days to see couples out on a date, both head down, scrolling endlessly through posts on Insta, Twitter or Facebook. Whole families round the table in restaurants can routinely be found squinting into their smartphones, while any young kids present are mesmerised by cartoons. People suspect that it’s not ideal behaviour, and it might end up causing problems in the long run, but there are clear practical advantages to just doing what everyone else does.

    I strongly suspect it will end in tears when those kids become adults. After all, to develop effective powers of self-control, it needs to be practised. Yet many parents aren’t requiring their kids to learn to manage their impulses, instead the technology produces convenient opportunities to just give them the stimulation and the immediate gratification that they desire. Rather them getting the chance to flex their fledgling powers of restraint at the dinner table – they’re gaming. Most weary parents will tend to take the path of least resistant advantage – mesmerising whining kids with screens to increase the peace – but at what cost in the long run?

    I’ve often thought that the reason so many people tolerate starkly anti-social behaviour from other adults (like people having obnoxiously loud phone conversations in public places) is that new technologies appear on the scene so soon after the previous ones. There simply seems to be no time for society to adjust to each successive disruption of the social norms. And until there is convincing scientific evidence for people to point to indicating a negative outcome from such behaviours, there’s little chance of convincing them to take measures to use their smartphones less. Even now that early evidence is emerging, bad habits remain notoriously difficult to change.

    Eyes down

    In essence, the evidence suggests that overuse of smartphones makes people less able to wait for a better reward later on and temporarily incapable of taking other people’s perspectives. As improving skills of empathy and delayed gratification have been deemed to be an instrumental part of the process of making people more civilised i.e. less likely inflict harm on those around them, it seems distinctly possible that those who overuse their smartphones will end up behaving more anti-socially, compared to those who use them in moderation. Could people who overuse their smartphones really be more prone to uncivilised behaviour?

    Happily this is a testable hypothesis, so hopefully someone out there is looking into this right now. Sadly, if it does prove to be true and smartphone overuse becomes the norm for most people over the next few years, we might also predict that the Long Peace we’ve been enjoying throughout the developed world over the past couple of generations might not last much longer. Let’s hope that our love affair with technology can be tempered sufficiently for this hypothetical unravelling of civilisation to be averted.

    Take control – eliminate tech distractions

    Avoiding this unpleasant scenario should be a piece of cake, if only people would take some simple steps to reduce their smartphone use. If more people kept their phone on silent, deleted all social media apps so they’re only accessed from static computers and avoid getting hooked on pointless, yet fun and addictive, smartphone games like Candy Crush – they’d find the numbers of hours they spent on their smartphones would rapidly diminish. It’s certainly not rocket science. But easier said than done. Once people find themselves hooked on their digital crack, they can feel unable to cut down.

    I finally deleted Facebook from my phone only last month. I now check it once every week or two on my laptop – more than enough to keep up with friends and family. Of the huge benefits I’ve experienced, one game changer has been avoiding wasting many hours lost by unlocking my smartphone to look at a text message or missed call, only to find myself checking Facebook, and various other apps 10, 20 and sometimes 30 minutes later. I call this Off-Target Faff (OTF). Switching off all notifications is a great way to reduce OTF. An even better strategy is to delete all non-essential apps completely.

    Personally, I’m well up for embracing new technologies. I’m just reluctant to surrender all control to them. While I might sound curmudgeonly, it would be a hard sell to accuse me of being a modern day Luddite. I’ve spent most of the last year experimenting with Virtual Reality (VR), reviewing games and building my ones so that eventually I can create tutorials to help others get into the wonderful world of VR. As with everything, I think the rule of thumb that helps people yield all the benefits of technology while avoiding the potential drawbacks is a simple case of: everything in moderation.

    In my soon-to-be-launched YouTube channel VIRTUAL VIVESANITY I make a big fuss about setting a 60 min countdown timer to help moderate how much time you spend in the various weird and wonderful worlds available through VR. I’m genuinely concerned that the sheer variety of immersive experiences offered by this particular “new” media format are so enticing that people will lose track of time and perhaps even start to forego real life events in order to spend more time in VR.

    That said, if people do manage to resist the impulse to overdo it, I feel utterly convinced that while 2D computer gaming made people fat, 3D VR gaming has the potential to make people fit (in both body and brain). So hopefully we can learn from the pitfalls we’ve identified with other new media formats of the past few decades and collectively agree upon a new technology etiquette – or techiquette – to help humanity embrace technological progression, without ending up in societal regression.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet regularly (@drjacklewis) and am getting very close to launching my new YouTube channel (Virtual ViveSanity).

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