Online Empathy

Online Empathy

Niki Lambropoulos (Intelligenesis Consultancy Group, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2803-8.ch007
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Abstract

Scientific research on empathy started in the early 20th century. Only in 1992 did the development of cognitive neuroscience help di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese and Rizzolatti to identify the mirror neurons related to representations of an Object from a Subject, verifying Lipps’ (1903) and McDugall’s (1908) suggestions on empathy. Primary empathy is related to the automatic matching of the feelings of the other person (Fischer, 1980). An example is the relationship newborns have between each other on their first days on the earth. Another verification of mirror neurons was made by Rizzolati and Arbib (1998), as well as identification of the areas where the mirror neurons are located, interacting with areas in both hemispheres (Broca area 44 and PE/PC).
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Background And Hypothesis

Scientific research on empathy started in the early 20th century. Only in 1992 did the development of cognitive neuroscience help di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese and Rizzolatti to identify the mirror neurons related to representations of an Object from a Subject, verifying Lipps’ (1903) and McDugall’s (1908) suggestions on empathy. Primary empathy is related to the automatic matching of the feelings of the other person (Fischer, 1980). An example is the relationship newborns have between each other on their first days on the earth. Another verification of mirror neurons was made by Rizzolati and Arbib (1998), as well as identification of the areas where the mirror neurons are located, interacting with areas in both hemispheres (Broca area 44 and PE/PC).

Hiltz and Turrof (1978) referred to members’ comments on their closest friends, whom seldom or never see each other face to face. Preece and Ghozati (2001) made the first serious attempt to search and analyze empathy in online communities as well as understand it better towards sociability and usability. They used the process-based model of knowing, feeling and responding compassionately for distress by Levenson and Ruef (1992), and the results showed that empathy is widespread in communities. In 2002, Preston and de Waal presented their Perception-Action Model (PAM), a process-based suggestion on empathy. PAM states that:

attended perception activates subject’s representations of the state, situation and object, and that activation of this representation automatically primes or generates the associated autonomic and somatic responses, unless inhibited (p. 4).

PAM also relates empathy to the levels of awareness, reconciliation and vicarious learning as well as effortful information processing. The latter, and the mirror neurons discovery, suggest that empathy can be taught and learned as it creates symmetries between the Subject and the Object, activating the primary empathy in human perception. Self-awareness leads to self-directed behaviour, then empathy arousal and, as such, arousal of shared intentions, feelings and thoughts for common goals, desires and beliefs for community building. Eslinger, Moll and de Oliveira-Souza (2002) are among the first neuroscientists to search for Subjects’ empathy from written text. They found that text judging showed different human brain pattern activation, strongly influenced by emotional experience of the text due to reasoning and judgment.

As such, the hypothesis was the following: If empathic members are sensitive organs who have the ability to simulate members’ common visions, needs and suggestions (Goleman, McKee & Boyatzis, 2002), they could be detected on the Internet, form a group and be mediators or messengers between authorities and the public.

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The Studies

In the first study, conducted in 2003, 13 individuals accepted to participate in a discussion forum on Peace and War before, during and after the invasion in Iraq (March 10 through August 23, 2003; the invasion was conducted on March 20). The subjects were from 16 to 48 years old and came from Canada, India, Greece and the U.K. They had to read the messages in the forum and keep notes simultaneously for three weeks in a self-observatory way. Then, they had to answer semi-structured interviews and hand in their notes. The results suggested that all members were initially open to other members. The second week, two respondents developed empathy (15.3%), as they reported identification of other members’ profiles, writing styles and similarities in feelings derived from the text. The same members decided to reply to the forum, which indicated that 100% of the members who developed empathy were activated.

In the second study, conducted July 2004, a focus group of 28 online community managers discussed active participation and groupz-ware. The Social Network Analysis (SNA) on social behaviour and interaction using Netminer as the research software and Content Analysis on textual communication using ATLAS.ti revealed that the most empathic members gave important insights to the discussion. In addition, specific message structures appeared from empathic members who followed PAM.

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