Look Into My Eyes: Empathy Develops Early

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When reviewing participant responses during a mobile video survey, our brilliant project managers (as someone who eats lunch with them, I can safely say that) aren’t just listening to what’s being said; Like a film critic worth their salt, they’re extracting insight from everything in the given frame. How is the room behind the participant organized? Are their walls bare? How is their fridge set up? Do they record with people in the background or do they find privacy? However, before project managers look to the edges of the frame, they begin with the participant themselves.


From the first moment the participant hits record, they’re telling a story. Their body language delicately communicates comfort, discomfort, exhaustion, energy, or excitement, amongst other things. Their facial expressions can subtly inform a project manager of a wide range of emotions. Indeed, it’s amazing how much insight can be gleaned when examining a participant’s one-minute video response. The question begs to be asked: how are we able to empathize with someone talking inside of a 740 x 480 pixel recorded video? Furthermore, how are we able to pick up on things like emotion when it isn’t explicitly stated? We needn’t look further than the whites of our eyes.


According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Sarah Jessen (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences) and Tobias Grossmann (University of Virginia), our ability to detect social cues (particularly emotion and attention) from the information conveyed by the whites of our eyes develops before we’re able to take our first steps.


Using ERPs (event-related brain potentials), the researchers ran two experiments that proved 7 month old infants can distinguish between fearful and non-fearful eyes, and direct and averted gaze, even when presented scleral information outside of the time it takes to be conscious of those perceptions. From the delicate age of 7 months, we are already so in tune with our fellow humans that seeing schematic pictures of eyes for only 50 milliseconds (too fast to see consciously) still conveys important social information.


Able to communicate on this unconscious level, we as humans are adept at understanding and developing empathy with each other. Thus, when our project managers are extracting insights from a 60-second video clip, they aren’t just coldly observing a participant, they are empathizing, whether consciously or unconsciously, with that participant. As humans, they can’t help it.


You can download the entire study HERE.


Title image by RichardJo53. License here.