Texting to Promote Empathy

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Social media often has a bad reputation when it comes to promoting friendship, compassion, and concern. But can texting build a sense of empathy with others?

It’s an important question, argues Sara Konrath, assistant professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and principal investigator for the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research (iPEAR), and John Templeton Foundation grantee. Every second, thousands of tweets are posted and hundreds of thousands of text messages are sent. But what is the emotional and personal impact of this virtual communication and, if negative, can it be changed?

In a talk during South By Southwest Interactive in March, Konrath shared her research finding that empathy has been declining in the United States since the late 1970s. “Narcissism has also been increasing,” she says. “An excessive self-focus, basically the opposite of empathy.” However, empathy can certainly be nurtured in individuals. “Dozens of studies have found that there are ways to help people to become more empathic,” she continues.

Recently, Konrath has been working with the Omidyar Group’s social innovation nonprofit, HopeLab, to identify how to use cell phones to help teens to become more empathic. Texting is a particular focus, not only because so many texts are sent, particularly among youth, but also because texting has already been used by other scholars to create healthy habits. For example, text messages have been shown to help people to quit smoking or monitor their blood sugar levels if they are diabetic.

“With the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, we have developed an empathy-building text message program called Text2Connect,” Konrath explains. “This 2-week program is designed to give people practice around feeling with others, imagining others’ perspectives, and practicing kind acts throughout the day.” For example, texts are sent that invite individuals to pay attention to the body language of the next person with whom they speak, or to take a moment to think of a close friend’s thoughts and feelings. “We are first testing this on young people, because of their empathy deficit, but we think that anyone can use this program to help build their empathy muscles,” Konrath continues.

So far, the research has yielded promising pilot data. “We are now in the middle of testing in a larger group, and among teenagers,” Konrath says. This includes actively recruiting 13 to 18 year olds at www.texttoconnect.org. “We’re hoping to better understand how many messages are most effective and for which types of teens. After we run this study, if everything works out, we will be looking for ways to disseminate it more broadly.”