Empathy in the Digital Age

Texts, email, and social media can all blunt this critical leadership skill. Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman explains how to keep it sharp.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

In 2014, a phishing scheme enabled four hackers to gain access to about 240 Apple iCloud accounts and users’ personal information. Among these were the accounts of celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Kristen Dunst, whose private photos were leaked online.

The last of the hackers, George Garofano, was recently sentenced to eight months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Garofano’s lawyer said he was apologetic: “When he gets behind a computer, he forgets what he does impacts other people.”

That sums up what technically is called “cyber-disinhibition,” where how we treat others online doesn’t align how we would treat them in person. Here’s why: Our brain’s social systems depend on immediate feedback, which text online lacks.

Our brain was designed for face-to-face interactions, during which our emotional centers operate quickly and unconsciously in the subcortex to take in a huge range of information from the other person and to send out impulses for how to respond—what to say and do. Meanwhile, circuits in the prefrontal cortex help guide those interactions, in part by inhibiting emotional impulses that would drive the interaction in a bad direction.

But online interactions lack this real-time feedback loop. Online we receive none of the cues necessary for emotional empathy. Instead, we have to rely on cognitive empathy. This means we pick up little or none of what the other person feels, and react mainly to what they write (or text). From the emotional perspective, we are flying blind—or numb.

In brain terms, we get no inhibition of impulse from the prefrontal circuitry—thus “cyber-disinhibition.” And when we don’t make the effort online to understand the other person’s perspective, or how a given response might make them feel, the social distance of the internet can quickly turn our worst impulses into words and deeds we would never think of in person, like leaking intimate photos and other forms virtual harassment.

As a short-term solution to the inability to meet in person, I recommend video conferencing and phone calls when you want to achieve a complex goal or create emotional connection with teammates or clients. Even if teams do implement regular video or phone conferences to connect with remote teammates, it’s important that these meetings incorporate productive team norms. Several companies in Silicon Valley prohibit phones and laptops in meetings to minimize distractedness while promoting focus and collaboration. And agreeing on norms regarding feedback and preferred communication styles helps especially when working in global or remote teams.

Another point: While emails and text messages are sufficient for transferring information, they have an innate negativity bias. Emails that senders identify as positive typically read as neutral to their recipients. And emails that senders describe as neutral often read as hostile. My wife encourages me to make emails more personal, which can minimize the negativity bias effect.

In the long term, though, I’m optimistic about the possibilities of innovative technologies to overcome current drawbacks online. For example, holographic messages could add an opportunity for emotional empathy in digital communications. Still, we need to value personal connections and the emotional information they give us. By intentionally connecting with people—in person, over the phone, or on a video call­—for discussions where emotion is at play (and that’s most anything important), we can minimize miscommunication and foster productive and meaningful relationships. 

Click here to learn about Daniel Goleman’s facilitated online courses.