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Thursday Complexity Post
July 17, 2014

Do Mobile Devices Derail Human Empathy?


Networked technologies allow us to be "in a persistent state of absent presence" that can erode empathy and connection, according to Virginia Tech researchers.


In fact, researchers found just having a mobile device within easy reach-even if you're not holding it or using it-can lessen the quality of a face to face conversation, reduce empathy among friends, and deflect our attention from what is happening right before our eyes.


"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies," a research team led by Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech wrote in an article in the journal Environment and Behavior. "In their presence people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication and direct their thoughts to other people and words."


In the study, 200 participants were divided into pairs and asked to chat for 10 minutes on either a meaningful topic or a trivial one. Nearby researchers recorded their nonverbal behavior and the presence or use of any mobile device at any time during the conversation. Afterwards, participants were asked about their feelings of personal connectedness and empathy with their conversational partners. When a mobile device was visible, participants rated the encounter less fulfilling and less empathetic. That finding held for trivial and substantial topics, and the negative relationship between the presence of devices and empathy was even more pronounced when the conversation was between people who knew each other. Apparently the mere presence of a mobile device can derail the natural empathy between friends.


Earlier research by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University in Essex in the UK produced similar findings. Pairs of strangers conversed while seated facing each other. A nearby table, out of their direct line of vision, held a book and one other item. When the other item was a cell phone, participants reported lower connectedness and a lower quality encounter than when the other item was a notebook.


Research by Sara Konrath and colleagues, reported in Scientific American and at the University of Michigan website, indicates college students of today are less empathetic than they were 30 years, ago, and that empathy has declined the most in the last decade. Konrath conducted meta-analysis combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students between 1979 and 2009. While reasons for the decline are uncertain, researchers note the trend has accompanied the rise of social media and mobile communications.


But scientists say those results aren't necessarily discouraging. They show our brains are plastic and subject to experiential influence. And as Konrath writes in a Psychology Today blog, mobile communications can make people feel closer to distant loved ones, and that they have tremendous still fully untapped potential to help people manage physical and mental illnesses. She notes that paradoxically the same technology associated with our being stressed and distracted can be used for people to provide electronic encouragement, kindness and support to each other.

President's Blog
Jeff Cohn writes about how the late Jasper Palmer, a patient transporter at Einstein Medical Center, emerged as a leader in an effort to prevent healthcare associated  MRSA infections.  Read It's Not Unusual.



Events of interest  


RCRC Roundtable, September 4-5, 2014 in Billings Clinic will be two highly interactive days of fun and learning on the topic of "Bridging Across Differences - Advancing the Practice of Relational Coordination," hosted by the innovative Billings Clinic and sponsored by Plexus Institute.


Leading Organizations to Health is a 10-month program on change leadership that integrates leading edge theories (from complexity, relational coordination, positive psychology, adult development and other domains) with advanced facilitation skills and peer coaching, all in a highly experiential and reflective learning environment.  

The 1st International Conference on Systems and Complexity in Health, November 13-14, 2014 in Washington, DC will bring together for the first time leading thinkers and researchers to explore and exchange insights under the theme: The value of systems and complexity sciences for healthcare: An imperative for the 21st century. 



Remember PlexusCalls!



Friday, August 1, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Making Better Meetings
Guests: Richard Axelrod, Emily Axelrod, and Lisa Kimball                


Ever hear of the Meeting Canoe? It's a blueprint for effective meetings that Dick and Emily Axelrod developed from their work with Peter Block and Kathy Dannemiller in the School for Managing and Leading Change. In their book, Let's Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done, Dick and Emily talk about how to design and lead the gathering that are vital to any change process. Join the conversation to learn more about a simple model to meet, collaborate, decide and get things done.




Friday, August 8, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Caring Science, Food and Health in Cameroon
Guests: John Nelson and Relindis Moffor                


When an agronomy professor heard John Nelson mention at a meeting that he worked in healthcare and studied the science of caring, she asked his thoughts on food sustainability. The professor helps runs an international food initiative in five countries, and she knew the hest initiatives are often foiled by poor transportation, spoilage, violent conflict and corruption. How might deliberate human caring be used in getting food to those who need it most? John Nelson and Relindis Moffor relied on Jean Watson's theory of caring to set up a small human-relationship centered food program among women in villages of Cameroon who are HIV positive, and they hope this pilot will add to the evolution of an interdisciplinary field of caring science.




Friday, August 22, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Quality Childhood Programs Boost Adult Health
Guests: James Heckman, Gabriella Conti and Ruth Perry                


A growing body of evidence suggests early childhood adversity echoes throughout lifetimes in terms of diminished educational and economic outcomes. Researchers have also found that can be changed-and that high quality early interventions impact adult health in surprising ways. Data from the North Carolina Abecedarian Project started in 1972 shows adults who received educational, medical and nutritional support from infancy through age 5 have less high blood pressure, less obesity, and lower incidence of chronic diseases than peers who were not part of the intervention. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics and University of Chicago professor, led the data analysis. He and health economist Gabriella Conti are coauthors of Science Magazine article detailing results of the study.  Ruth Perry leads the Trenton Health Team in Trenton, NJ. 



See more upcoming PlexusCalls on the Plexus Calendar.  

Audio from all PlexusCall series is available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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