Sherry Turkle [ Attention Economy ] A meta-analysis that looked at many surveys– many studies– over the past 20 years — found that there has been a 40% drop in all markers for empathy among college students — most of it in the last 10 years. The argument that I’m going to make today — and that I make in “Reclaiming Conversation”– that conversation is the remedy to today’s empathy crisis.
The whole question of– let us grant that part of the way we got ourselves into some trouble with empathy, which is born from looking at someone in the eye, not breaking that contact, hearing what they have to say, they’re hearing back what you have to say, taking some time– let us grant that interrupting that, by going like this, is part of the problem.
To what degree do we want to solve it with this technology that we have always on hand? How much are we going to look to technology to solve the problem that, perhaps, technology got us into? It obviously is very seductive to do that. But is that a good idea?
I found out, as I began to get more evidence about the empathy crisis, when I was called in to consult in middle schools for much younger students than college students. And in one school in particular– in the book, I call it the Holbrook School– the teachers were saying that the students, about 12-year-old students, were behaving like eight-year-old students.
They were showing a kind of cruelty to their fellow students– not on the Internet, not in cyberbullying situations. But really, the teachers were saying they didn’t seem to understand how other students were feeling when other students were talking to them.
They essentially were describing a crisis of empathy.
And they didn’t seem to get it when their teachers spoke to them. They said 12-year-old students behaved like eight-year-old students. So it was a very dramatic study for me– all these places where I was finding teachers and educators of– did a large study of teachers and all kinds of educators in that age range, who were all talking about kind of the same thing.
But then there were a group of studies that were truly optimistic and that I want to share with you.
In only five days without phones in a summer camp that’s device-free, young people get those empathy markers to come right back up. In other words, we are built to have an empathic response to each other. Now how do they get those empathy markers to come back up? They talk to each other. They talk to each other without turning away from each other to look for a device.
So getting back to the Barbie, and getting back to the fact that most kids have phones when they’re five or six or seven, why would we give kids– just at the time when they’re developing that empathic response, why would we want to give children an object that will block the development of empathy? And phones do block the development of empathy, not because we meant them to. It’s not because we said, oh, we’re going to just invent something that’s really going to get in the way of empathy. It’s just because, when you go like that to a person, you’re putting them on pause and you’re saying that you can’t attend to what they’re thinking or feeling.
Now the more developed and older the person is, the less– let’s say– damage it’s going to do.
But a series of studies show that if you are sitting at a table and you put a phone, a silent phone, on the table between you, first of all, the conversation will go to trivial matters. The topic of the conversation will change. It will not be about important things. And secondly, you will feel less empathic connection with the person you’re talking to .
And then they re-did this study in a natural setting, where they put the phone, not between two people having lunch, but in the periphery of the landscape– like if you put the phone almost where I couldn’t see it at the edge of the stage, and had me talking to somebody at lunch, but the phone’s almost like at the next table . And they got the same results — conversation on things less important, and less sense of commitment and connection, less empathic sense with the person you’re talking with.
Essentially, it makes every kind of sense that if people think they’re going to be interrupted, their attitude toward a conversation changes. It’s really as simple as that.
And college students know that. They know that they don’t pay attention to each other when they have their phones. And they talked to me about something they called the rule of threes, as a lot of my own research took place on college campuses.
One young man says to me, introducing the Rule of Three– because at the beginning, I had been thinking of doing a study on the nature of texting, on the diction of texting, really getting deeply into the linguistics of texting. And he said, don’t do that. It’s not our texting, he says, that’s getting us into trouble. It’s what our texting is doing to our in-person conversations.
And that really was my lodestar for this study.
It’s not our texting that’s getting us into trouble, he said, it’s what our texting is doing to our in-person conversations. And I said, well, tell me more. And to illustrate this, I get the story about the Rule of Three. And here’s the Rule of Three. When you’re at dinner– let’s say it’s six– three people have to have their heads up before you give yourself permission to put your head down to text, because everybody has their phone and everybody’s going to be texting at dinner. So the Rule of Three is a kind of new politeness about when you can let your attention go down.
What is the result of the Rule of Three?
It’s exactly the result of all those studies that took place with the silent phone on the table, that changed the nature of discussion and gave people less than empathic connection with each other. Things are kept light and on subjects where you don’t mind being interrupted, and people feel less of an empathic connection with each other.
And it’s not just among college students.
I should mention a recent Pew study showed that 89% of adults say that, in their last social interaction, they took out a phone. And 82% say that it diminished the conversation.
Now that study goes on to be very realistic and very positive and very upbeat about all the great things people did when they took out their phone. They looked up a movie, they looked up a cinematographer, they checked a thing in their neighborhood. The phone is completely integrated in their life. But, bottom line, 89% interrupted a social interaction; 82% say it lessened the conversation.
Rule of Three.
And then there’s the Rule of Seven. The Rule of Seven is what a college junior described as this. It takes seven minutes to know where a conversation is going to go, just like it probably takes seven minutes to know whether you’re going to pay close attention to this. You have to get used to somebody’s body in the room, the way somebody speaks, the kind of cadence, how they express themselves. But certainly in a conversation, where you’re adjusting to each other, there are fits and there are starts and there are lulls, it takes seven minutes to see whether this is going to be worth her time, she explains to me.
And then she says, I often don’t put in my seven minutes, because I just would rather go to the phone and get the reliability of that steady feed.
It’s easier to just send a text during those seven minutes. It’s easier to get something sure and certain, and it’s more efficient. And a lot of people I interviewed said that– they don’t put in that kind of time or wait for that kind of lull, or allow themselves a moment of boredom in conversations today. Before that happens, they go to a phone.
So you can see a kind of perfect storm building up here.
All roads led me to a crisis in a certain kind of conversation. It’s not like we’re not talking. I’m talking about the kind of conversation that’s spontaneous, open ended, where there are tangents, where you allow yourself lulls, where you don’t interrupt each other, where there’s eye contact– the kind of thing where empathy is born, where creativity is most likely to happen .
A crisis in empathy is happening, and I’m arguing that conversation is the talking cure.
Conversation– that kind of conversation– is the most human and humanizing thing that we know how to do, that doesn’t take away in the slightest from the fun and the intellectual qualities and the sexiness and the eroticism and the joy of texting, and e-mail, and messaging, and everything, just everything. It just means that conversation has some particularities, even in our neurophysiology, that makes it the ideal thing for teaching empathy and for getting certain kinds of results in creativity, collaboration, and developing the human.
It’s the training ground for empathy.
And I’m not saying to put away your phones for a certain amount of time because it’s polite, or because I want you to learn some kind of art of conversation, to be kind of fancy talkers. I’m really saying that this flight from conversation, the fact that we don’t want to sit around “the boring bits”– as one woman said to me, “I don’t like the boring bits”– is actually interfering with something we need to do for each other as human beings.
There are great ironies, as I said. Even though the psychologists are agreeing on this crisis in empathy, there’s this big movement to create these empathy apps– getting ourselves into trouble and wanting technology to cure it, just as people are intolerant of being alone and want technology to cure that.
Many of you may have heard of a study that’s become widely cited, in which a group of college students– this was part of a group of 21 studies– but one study at the University of Virginia, a group of college students were told that they would be asked to sit alone from six to 15 minutes and were they OK with that. Sure. No devices, no books. Sure. Did they think they might want to give themselves electroshocks during that period. No, not really. No. They were asked to test the shocking out. They tested it. No, really not. And then they were just asked to sit alone without a device.
After six minutes, the students were shocking themselves.
Being alone was so intolerable that they would rather give themselves electroshocks than sit quietly with their own thoughts.
Being alone is a problem that we want technology to solve. And I bring this up because there is actually an important connection that I want to leave you with. If you leave with one thing, it’s like– this is the thing to leave with– this important connection between conversation and solitude, because I think this is where my work is often misunderstood.
They’ll say, well, sure, Sherry Turkle says the problem is we’re looking at our devices when we’re together. OK, grant her that. That’s not so cool. But what about if I look at my device when I’m alone? Who’s that bothering? That’s not a problem for anybody.
You need to have a capacity for solitude in order to have a capacity for sociality.
The link between conversation and solitude is tremendous.
We cannot solve our flight from conversation, our crisis of empathy, without dealing with our incapacity for solitude, with our flight from solitude. That it’s only when you can gather yourself, be content with yourself, and, because of that, talk to another person and really see who they are as a person, and hear them for who they are because you’re OK with yourself, can you begin to have a conversation.
The way psychologists have put this so beautifully is that, if you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely– that solitude and sociality go together. And that’s why you can’t just say, oh, well, the devices– I’ll worry about the devices when I’m with other people. But whatever I do by myself, my intolerance for having a moment alone, that’s nothing.
We have to be more intentional in our use of devices for ourselves, not just because we’re breaking up conversations with other people.
What I’m basically saying is that we’re at a kind of Rachel Carson moment– distracted at our dinner tables and living rooms, at business meetings and in classrooms. I see traces of the new Silent Spring– that’s the term that Carson coined– when we were ready to see that with technological change had come an assault on our environment. And now we’ve arrived at another moment of recognition.
When I wrote “Alone Together,” people thought it was a good book, but people wanted to fight with me. It was like, OK, this is a really good book. Let’s fight about this.
And now I really feel that we’ve arrived at a moment of recognition when people feel that something is amiss. Something is amiss. We have a great technology, but something is amiss. We need to get it more aligned with the lives we want to live.
This time, technology is implicated in an assault on empathy.
Rachel Carson’s moment was a moment of recognition that we were at a point where we had to do something and we could do something. And now, too, we can do something. We can do many somethings, many somethings, both in how we design technology– I’m delighted to be speaking here, delighted to be here– and how we use technology. There are many somethings.
I’m just going to quickly rush through a couple of these little somethings, so as not to take too much more than seven minutes on all the things to do. And then I hope that in the questions we can open up to more somethings. These somethings sound like little somethings, but when you add them together, it’s a change in culture.
We’re not looking for solutions. We’re looking for first steps.
So what are some first steps? First of all, act with intention. A father is giving his two-year-old daughter a bath, and he’s doing his mail on the iPhone. And he says to me, I remember giving my 11-year-old daughter a bath when she was two. And he used to just sit with her, and talk to her, and sing to her, and play with the little toys she had in her bathtub. I kind of miss that with my two-year-old. I play– I don’t do that. I just do my mail on my iPhone.
Technology makes us forget what we know about life. That’s Author’s Choice. That’s my favorite line in my book– technology makes us forget what we know about life.
He knows that he is doing something that’s amiss. That little girl needs some conversation from her dad. And he enjoyed, and was nurtured himself, by talking to his older child. At a moment like this, pull up your socks pull yourself together, and put down the phone. So act with intention. Participate, however you can, in a revitalization of public conversation, because public conversations teach us. They model how conversation can unfold.
Too many of my students say they don’t know how to have a public conversation. They don’t know how to have a conversation. They say their families didn’t talk at dinner. I lay a lot of this on parents. It was my generation that thought we would only get a Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio. That was the best we would ever get. And then, all of a sudden, I have a smartphone, and this is amazing.
And we didn’t talk to our kids. It’s parents who didn’t talk at breakfast and dinner.
It’s kids who are telling me that they never took a walk with their father to the corner store when the father didn’t have his phone with him. So it’s very important that we have public conversations, including classrooms, where there’s a lot of talk, which is part of my problem with putting everything on screens and distance learning.
Not that it, itself, isn’t good, but you have to worry every time you take conversation away from the classroom.
Remember that the presence of a device already signals that your attention is divided , even if you do not intend it to be. Remember those studies of phones on the table. Remember that when you put that phone on the table, you were signaling that you could be elsewhere, even if you don’t mean to go elsewhere.
So do the simplest thing. Just don’t put it on the table. Accept what research has made clear.
And you’ve heard this so many times. It’s so boring. Anyway, just listen to me. Uni-tasking is the next big thing. There is no such thing as multitasking. Do one thing at a time. Really, be in the vanguard. Everybody knows this. Nobody wants to hear it. So I’ve said it. You know it’s true. Conversation is the human way to practice uni-tasking. It’s part of the reason why it’s so hard.
Don’t try to be perfect.
My students come to me and they say they do not want to go to office hours. They want to write me an email instead of office hours. Why do they want to write me an email? Because they will write the email that best expresses their question, and I will write them an email back that perfectly answers– that’s perfectly pitched and gives them the most information back. It’s a transaction, and it’s perfect.
Who developed a love of knowledge, a love of learning?
Am I here today because I really asked a perfect question and somebody gave me a perfect answer? No. There is no one who developed a love of learning for that reason. It’s because somebody sat down with me, believed in me, because I looked at somebody in a conversation and said, I could be like that person. I could be– what would it take for me to be like that person, and that person is talking to me and interested in me.
That’s how it happens.
Cultivate solitude. The capacity to be alone with your thoughts is crucial. Some of the most crucial conversations you’re going to have are conversations with yourself. To have them, you have to learn to listen with your own voice, set aside your laptops and your tablets, and put away your phone. And finally, obey the Seven Minute Rule. That’s the rule suggested to me by a college junior, that says that it takes at least seven minutes to see how a conversation is going to unfold. You have to let it unfold, and not go to your phone before those minutes pass.
If there is a lull in the conversation, let it be.
Every technology challenges our human values, which is a good thing because it causes us to reflect on what these values are. If we’ve invented a technology that causes us to look at each other less, to make less eye contact, that needs to be a signal to us. And the message of my book is that we’re all in this together. Let’s just look up, look at each other, and start the conversation.
Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. She has spent the last 30 years studying the psychology of people’s relationships with technology. A renowned media scholar, “Reclaiming Conversation” is her ninth book.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Tom Adamson