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The Gaze of Empathy June 1, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Teaching.
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In the midst of scientific reports that humans in general are far more empathetic than selfish (at least by nature) we all of a sudden hear that college students are less empathetic now than in generations past.

 Researchers analyzed data from studies conducted between 1979 and 2009, and found the sharpest drop in empathy occurred in the last nine years.

 For instance, today’s students are less likely to agree with statements like, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

According to one of the lead researchers, Ed O’Brien, “It’s harder for today’s college student to empathize with others because so much of their social lives is done through a computer and not through real life interaction.”

So some researchers blame computers and the social sites like, yes, Facebook. You can communicate about yourself endlessly, without being expected to reciprocate (“Thanks for asking about my day—how was yours?”). But one comment, from “Cricket,” on the article quoted above really adds something to the discussion:

A fellow storyteller noticed that this year’s Master of Library Science class in storytelling (don’t laugh — good storytelling and story collecting involves a huge amount of research) didn’t make eye contact. This is an affluent group of white females — a culture in which eye contact has always been considered appropriate. (In some cultures it’s an invasion of privacy.) After discussing it with them, she learned they didn’t realize eye contact was appropriate. I remember parents and teachers used to insist on it: “Look at me when I’m talking to you / when you’re talking to me.” Since then, they have said that her class is more friendly than others, and it’s the only class where they socialize together after class.

That comment triggered a veritable Aha-moment for me, because I have observed the same phenomenon in my classes, increasingly, over the past decade: there are some students who hide and avoid eye contact because they haven’t studied the material. That’s nothing new—we’ve all done that when we were in school. And then there are students from some non-Western cultures who may have been taught that it is rude to look a person of authority straight in the eye. So cultural differences can account for some incidents.  But when good students with a Western cultural background are avoiding eye contact, it gets interesting. Increasingly I have students who bring their laptops or their Kindle devices to class. Some instructors prohibit such devices, I don’t—yet. I just ban non-class-related activity. And what I see is those students—the good ones— being utterly absorbed by what it is they’re watching, or doing, on the screen. Usually it’s note taking, and not game-playing (and I check!)…. But even when you take notes, you’re supposed to look up once in a while and look at the instructor performing his or her stand-up routine there in front of you. We’re not just standing up there at the whiteboard to repeat a lesson, like Tivo on a 3-D TV—we’re actually there to create a teaching moment from scratch every day, and some of it is improv! What creates the most significant difference between a classroom experience and an online course is the face-to-face encounter with questions and ideas. But without the basic eye contact participation you might as well be at home behind your screen, taking an online course (which has its merits, but the face-to-face learning moment isn’t one of them). When I have told my students that I expect eye contact from them, they have—to my enormous consternation—been surprised. And now  I realize that they simply may not be accustomed to eye contact being appropriate, because of having grown up frequently—maybe even primarily— communicating electronically with peers. The first generation in the history of humanity where eye contact is no longer the first clear human outreach? Now that is fundamentally frightening. The gaze of The Other is fundamental to many 20th century philosophies, in particular Sartre’s, who sees it as (by and large) a competition,  and Levinas’s, who sees it as humanity looking right at you, asking for your empathy. Look at Vermeer’s  “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” the picture I use for my “Gravatar,” as well as for the cover of my book, The Human Condition:

detailed view of face

This is the face of the Other. She is looking right at you, with the gaze of a human being, real and timeless. She expects a response. But if we withhold our gaze and think that’s normal, well, then there is no empathy coming forth.



1. Asur - June 2, 2010

Although recognition of another person as such is a necessary condition for empathy toward them, eye contact itself is not a necessary condition for that recognition, merely one that many of us are accustomed to.

And that is all it is — a convention, a symbol. Just as the symbol can be discarded and its object retained, so too with eye-contact and empathy.

If there is a lessening of empathy with college students today, I do not think it due to communication without eye-contact. If that were so, one would expect the blind to be the most monstrous among us, yet that is not so.

2. Paul J. Moloney - June 6, 2010

Having worked eight summers around blind children when I was younger, much younger, (It turned out that I spent those summers working around the blind, not for any humanitarian motivation but because of the girls who worked there. It was an humanitarian act, though, when one of those girls married me.) I know that blind children will look you in the face when you are speaking, even though they cannot see your face, or they will look in the general direction of your voice, or they will look as if they are thinking about what you are saying. In other words the blind have the same facial characteristics, positive and negative, when listening to someone as do sighted people. It does seem, then, that eye contact, whether one can see or not, is an imperative indication of empathy or some kind of fellowship. Not to have any eye contact seems to indicate a lack of interest in the one speaking.

After reading this post I realize that I study the faces of the people to whom I speak at work in order to ascertain their reaction to what I am saying. No reasonable person is going to want to be a bore, not even in casual conversation. Also, it seems we always want to see the face of the one we love or those with whom we are friends on some level.

In a philosophy class, I am speculating that eye contact will have a correspondence to the interest the student has in the subject. The student will be interested in what the instructor has to say because they are interested in philosophy. If that is true then there will be some eye contact, but not to the extent that the eye contact will distract from what the instructor is saying, as what the instructor is saying should be more important than the instructor’s appearance. On the student side, I have studied the body language of instructors in order to relate what they are saying to how they are saying it. I have to say that the instructors I have had seem to have had a genuine interest in philosophy. This is encouraging because most people I have contact with outside the academic world have no interest in philosophy whatsoever. I personally maintain, though, that there is nothing more interesting than philosophy, even if most people are not interested in it. If philosophy is something interesting in itself then the problem is in those who are not interested in it.

If eye contact belongs to social interaction, and if social interaction takes exertion and is difficult in other ways, it is no surprise that there is little eye contact. Why good students do not give adequate eye contact is another question. It really does seem that it would be poorer students not giving adequate eye contact. Maybe some students think that philosophy is a subject that cannot be taken personally, and, therefore, there is no reason to have interest in the person teaching it.

What some people say about the computer impeding social interaction may be some of the same things some people said about the telephone more than a century ago.

Again, as far as eye contact goes, even the family cat gives us eye contact, at least when he’s awake.

3. Donald Johnson - December 9, 2010

I think its interesting that such a study should be made but I dont think digital communication such as facebook can be correctly linked to avoiding eye contact.

In psychology we were taught that avoid or maintaining eye contact is signature of our upbringing. During comforting moments with our family or loved ones it was found that in small instances where a child makes eye contact but the other does not maintain it the child gets conditioned against maintaining contact eye to eye.

This goes for me as well. My mother was busy a lot of the time while at home and would seldom make full eye contact with me to communicate with me. We would still talk opening but the eye to eye communication was not there.

Children who had eye contact reciprocated and maintained with another were conditioned to continuously keep eye with the other person. I believe this stretches to other social situation as well.

I am not saying digital communication hinders our ability to communicate in the physical presence of another, certainly it does. But holding someones gaze for a given amount of time does have its psychological properties.

You might also consider the fact that not all people are highly social and extroverted. I consider myself an introvert and find that I have to consciously think of making eye contact in certain situations for me to actually commit the action. I know many people of either classification and extroverts tend to look for the eye contact right off the bat where introverts may be happy looking elsewhere.

Just my 2 cents.

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