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How to create an app to increase empathy?

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Martina Pesce
Martina Pesce Oct 16, 2020
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Which layout and content should we use to create an interactive app to increase the empathy level?

In the past 50 years, we witnessed a decline in empathy . Given that:

a) empathy is in part an improvable skill and not just a fixed genetic trait , and research have already found out ways to develop it such as theatre , reading and augmented reality and,

b) it has many benefits such as subjective wellbeing , job success , healthier and happier relationships , it may be worth it providing the population with a handy way to practice it since the world we live in makes it hard to be empathetic.

So, how do we build such an app?
  • What exercises would you pick for such an app?
  • How do you make it "cool enough" to not be a flop like the RAKi app or the Empathy app ?
  • Should the app also have some theoretical information on empathy or just practical exercises?
  • What is the audience? Or should there be different exercises in the app depending on the age (adult, adolescents, kids)?

[1]S. H. Konrath, E. H. O’Brien, and C. Hsing, “Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis,” Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev., 2011.

[2]A. Knafo and F. Uzefovsky, “Variation in Empathy: The Interplay of Genetic and Environmental Factors,” in The developing infant mind: Integrating biology and experience, 2012.

[3]T. R. Goldstein and E. Winner, “Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind,” J. Cogn. Dev., 2012.

[4]D. Dodell-Feder and D. I. Tamir, “Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis,” J. Exp. Psychol. Gen., 2018.

[5]F. Herrera, J. Bailenson, E. Weisz, E. Ogle, and J. Zak, “Building long-term empathy: A large-scale comparison of traditional and virtual reality perspective-taking,” PLoS One, 2018.

[6]M. Wei, K. Y. H. Liao, T. Y. Ku, and P. A. Shaffer, “Attachment, Self-Compassion, Empathy, and Subjective Well-Being Among College Students and Community Adults,” J. Pers., 2011.

[7]F. Gerli, S. Bonesso, and C. Pizzi, “Boundaryless career and career success: The impact of emotional and social competencies,” Front. Psychol., 2015.



Creative contributions

The size of our environment matters

jnikola Oct 19, 2020
Older people living in the countryside seem to be more empathic. For example, my grandparents were shocked by the death of an unknown person from their village and I am not shocked by the death of a person living next door.

I believe the reduction of empathy was introduced by the increase in the number of friends, neighbors, people we meet, and their problems we constantly encounter. The enormous amount of the information we find on the internet, both good and terribly bad, is influencing our response to it, often making us less emotionally responsive. It is a good self-protection system but has a reduction of empathy as a consequence.

The app that has a "go local" feature could subconsciously reintroduce empathy by making the events in your surroundings more personal. It would show news and contents based on your location, contacts, interests, the school you went to, or a sports club where you trained. Information that is more addressed to people you actually care about could, I guess, make you feel empathy again.

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Design the app to produce empathy not as a product, but a perk!

Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Oct 17, 2020
This is a philosophically loaded query. Firstly, to 'increase' empathy, what basal minimum level of empathy do we need? Can we even define it? Nevertheless, given the evidence that reading, AR and theatre can improve empathy in the individuals, there must be some determinant variables that we can seek to modulate through the app if we ever are to develop one. Empathy is the ability of an individual to react to another individual's experience. However, although someone may observe and share the pain and suffering of another, it does not necessarily lead them to act in a way to alleviate that pain. As such, creating 'Input' variables that can directly shoot up the empathy level of a person could be tricky. To address this gap, I propose an alternative mode of designing the app which doesn't directly correlate the input to the empathy, rather takes a detour through cultivating other virtues.
  • Include compassion meditation As pointed out in this article, it has been found that compassion-based meditation practice can improve a person's ability to read the facial expressions of others, a behavioural trait directly related to empathy. This increase in empathy accuracy was detected using Cognitively-Based Compassion Testing (CBCT) derived from ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices- which is basically scanning the study participant through functional magnetic resonance for their brain activity. Hence, if the app could somehow motivate the users to be involved in compassion-based meditation on a regular basis, maybe it could help them increase empathy.
  • Cultivate gratitude Gratitude, the simple act of being thankful, is one of the most important virtues that is often missed out when talking about empathy. Cultivating gratitude can increase empathy and lead to a positive cycle of experiencing gratitude and having empathic responses to other individuals. In another research conducted on the effect of September 11th on children, researchers suggested that a possible coping strategy for children struggling with the negative effects of terrorism, may in fact be to foster empathy toward those who were affected and express gratitude toward helpers .
Hence, the app might also include a system of being thankful: maybe a text editor to list all the things that the user is grateful for every day; or a gratefulness sharing option to let people know why you feel grateful on a regular basis.

[1]Worthen, V. E., & Isakson, R. L. (2007). The therapeutic value of experiencing and expressing gratitude. Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy, 31, 33-46.

[2]Gordon, A. K., Musher-Eizenman, D. R., Holub, S. C., & Dalrymple, J. (2004). What are children thankful for? An archival analysis of gratitude before and after the attacks of September 11. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25, 541-553. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2004.08.004

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Marco Agudelo
Marco Agudeloa year ago
It could be that empathy is a response to being at peace with yourself
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Empathy courses, activities, and social media-like posts.

Jamila Oct 21, 2020
An app like this should have short empathy courses, activities, and a timeline where people can post heart-warming things (basically like social media posts but positive ones only). As the person completes the courses, activities, and posts, they could get badges or points to achieve a particular ranking on the app. This would be a great way to educate the users about empathy, and then they can use their knowledge practically on the app.

Perhaps, there could be multiple activities on this new app that increase empathy. I think it's better to have several activities because you might be more likely to target someone's interests if you have more choices available. Some of the activities could include:
  • Mindfulness
  • Writing/reading poetry
  • Participating in support groups
  • Guessing emotions activity
  • Acts of kindness – for example, giving compliments.

[1]Cheang, Rachael, Anna Gillions, and Elizabeth Sparkes. "Do mindfulness-based interventions increase empathy and compassion in children and adolescents: A systematic review." Journal of Child and Family Studies (2019): 1-15.

[2]Schoonover, Kimberly L., et al. "Impact of poetry on empathy and professional burnout of health-care workers: a systematic review." Journal of palliative care 35.2 (2020): 127-132.

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Positive propaganda

Spook Louw
Spook Louw May 22, 2021
Although it is a topic that might be unpleasant to do research on, it is fascinating to see how effectively groups throughout history have used what we have come to classify as propaganda to further their causes.
Propaganda has always been connected to ideas that are false and therefore needed to be instilled in the minds of the population, but can we not use it to further positive ideals like empathy?

An example that is as gruesome as it was effective is the Nazis. In retrospect, we can see exactly how they used propaganda to excite the nation about certain topics while desensitizing them to others. This article depicts how "In Nazi Germany during World War II, euphemisms were used to desensitize physicians and society to the horrors of a program of euthanasia".

Why could these linguistic and marketing not be used for the benefit of the people as well? Perhaps by barraging people with positive, happy content, we could shift society's inclinations towards more empathetic, caring versions of what we are displaying at the moment? Could simply being exposed to positive content on a regular basis have an equal effect to that enjoyed by the perpetuators of propaganda?

An app like this could simply feed us good, wholesome content, whereas social media apps tend to allow negative, albeit real news, opinions or art in as well. Carefully chosen content could promote empathy and virtue, and if we spend enough time on the app it could become instilled in our psyches.
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Use personal relationship management apps

jnikola Nov 23, 2022
I think empathy could be increased if more people used personal relationship management apps. I talked more about them in the contribution here.
If everyone got all their contacts listed, sorted, updated and tracked, it would be easier to understand which social interactions we tend to avoid, which ones are valuable to us and which ones we should care about more. The app would remind us to contact people we didn't contact for a long time. If we refuse to contact someone a few times, they would be positioned lower on our "importance" scale. That seems like an easy way to increase empathy towards people that deserve it.
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