I feel really sorry for Janet Richardson, the 73-year-old grandmother who was accidentally dropped into the ice-cold sea by paramedics as they tried to take her from her holiday cruise ship, the Ocean Countess, to hospital in Norway. I don’t know her and I’ve never been dropped into the sea myself. But I have been on a cruise ship and I have witnessed a dramatic night-time rescue of fishermen whose boat had capsized in the Bay of Biscay. So, in a small way, we share something and I feel some kind of empathy for her situation.
The link we have is very tenuous and slim – but new research shows that the links between human beings do not need to be extensive for empathy to arise. In a very clever study psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada and Stanford in the USA found that when people had small pieces of their life in common there was greater empathy between them even ten weeks after the connection was discovered. The only issue was that the so-called similarity was false – stooges were used in the experiment who were paired with people on the basis of some kind of similarity. They were, up until that point, strangers. Then, ten weeks later another study was performed using the pairs of people – who had not been in contact in the meantime. Significantly, the research found that in the pairs of strangers who were “matched” for life similarities there were signals of empathy between them which were not present in similar, “unmatched” people. The mere fact that these people thought they had shared similarities was enough to make them empathetic towards each other. And the study found that the empathy was more than psychological – the matched pairs of people also had heart rates which matched once they were back in contact with each other.
What the research tells us is that when people feel they are connected even in a small way to another individual, there are physiological and psychological changes which helps us emphasise that connection. We feel closer than we might be and we even get physiologically similar. This is a significant finding and has major implications online.
With businesses trying to be “business-like” and “corporate” there is little way of producing any kind of empathy. But if the CEO has a Twitter account and demonstrates their personality through it, the customers will feel much more empathy towards that person and thereby the company they represent. In other words, it is more material that suggests that even small amounts of online social networking will boost the empathy between companies and their customers.
One of the issues many businesses have with social networking is the time it takes. But this research suggests that even if you only do a small amount of it, the effects can be significant and long-lasting. Customers will have increased empathy with your business – even having their heart beat in time with the CEOs – if you engage in small amounts of personality-focused social networking. And if their heart beats in time with yours guess how difficult it will be for them to avoid buying from you.
More evidence that being social is fundamental online. And being social means just that – stop being a business and start being individual; it is the only way to capitalise on the impact of empathy.
- How to Test Your Empathy (psychologytoday.com)
- Sick cruise passenger dropped in sea (independent.co.uk)
- Gran overboard (thesun.co.uk)
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+