Empathy can thrive in an online world

Research finds electronic communication is no bar to the development of interpersonal skills

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The fear that the growing popularity of online computer games, Skype and email is destroying the ability of people to develop essential interpersonal skills is unfounded, according to a study by a team of US-based academics.

Their research focused on what psychologists call “collective intelligence”, which describes how people tend to be able to achieve more than they could on their own, by working effectively together in teams.

Such achievements require the skills to interact effectively with the rest of the group and up until now it has been felt that these are better obtained through face-to-face contact.

Previous studies have found collective intelligence was only moderately correlated to the individual intelligence of group members. It was much more closely correlated to the average social perceptiveness of group members, the degree to which people participated equally in a group conversation and the percentage of women in the group.

These conclusions were gained by using face-to-face tests, most notably one called “reading the mind in the eyes” in which participants looked at pictures of other people’s faces and tried to guess their emotions. When people in a group were good at reading faces, it was found that the group on average was more collectively intelligent.

The new study looked to see if social perceptiveness could be gained through purely electronic communication. It used a similar measure of collective intelligence to the previous research, but tested groups that communicated both face-to-face and purely online.

Participants in the face-to-face group used the previous criteria for testing by reading faces. The online group were limited to communication through text chat and were prevented from seeing or talking to one other during the tests.

Much to the surprise of those conducting the research they found that there was no significant difference between the online only and the face-to-face group in developing the interpersonal skills to read the emotions of their teammates. They just acquired these skills using different cues.

While those looking at people’s faces could use the visual cues, those in the online only group were able to judge their teammates by reading between the lines of what they were typing to one another.

Thomas Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, who was the senior author of the study, says: “Not only did we find people could work effectively together online but that people develop social intelligence skills even when they cannot see into each others’ eyes.

Interpersonal skills have always been important in working successfully in groups within organisations, but this study’s findings indicate they will continue to be important — perhaps even more important — in the electronically connected future, Prof Malone notes.

“The test must be tapping into a much broader set of skills than originally thought,” he adds. “It seems to tap into the ability to have accurate theories about what is going on in other people’s minds. People who are good at reading emotion in the eyes also seem to be good at reading emotion in texts and imagining what is going on in others’ minds even though they only see typing.”

The study was published today by PLOS ONE, an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science. Other authors included Carnegie Mellon professor Anita Woolley, MIT researcher Lisa Jing, and Union College professor Christopher Chabris.

“The surprising finding in our new work was that the average social perceptiveness of group members was equally predictive of collective intelligence in both face-to-face and online groups,” Prof Malone says.

“So having people in groups with a high level of social intelligence is just as helpful whether the group meets in person or electronically.”

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