Oregon State University logo

When Empathy Fails

Amber Fultz has always been fascinated by social interaction. As a freshman, her curiosity propelled her into a psychology major and into professor Frank Bernieri’s Interpersonal Sensitivity Lab. There, Fultz became one of 90 psychology undergraduates to perform research alongside a faculty mentor.

Amber Fulutz

Undergraduate Amber Fultz’s research explores the communication challenges presented by electronic synthesizer devices.

Fultz’s most recent work in the lab focused on empathy and whether highly empathetic people could solve some of the interpersonal communication challenges presented by electronic synthesizer devices. Millions of people with neurodegenerative disorders use these devices. Having to type or use a joystick to move a cursor means that their conversational partners sit in silence, waiting for their conversations to continue.

“We theorized that the more empathetic the listener, the more considerate they’d be, and that the quality of interaction would be higher,” Fultz says. Fultz’s study is part of a larger collaboration between Bernieri’s lab and Bill Smart, an associate professor with the robotics program in the College of Engineering, along with several students in each program.

To initiate the study, one of Smart’s robotics students attempted to predict the moment that partners who were conversing with people using electronic synthesizer devices would become disengaged. Smart invited Bernieri’s group to get involved to track the degree of conversational engagement between partners.

“We’re bridging two fields of study that are so far apart, and getting meaningful results from them is really hard to do,” says Smart. “But there’s actionable information from psychology that can advance robotics and vice versa. That’s where collaboration works best. We couldn’t do our part on our own.”

Fultz brought empathy into the study. Over two years, Fultz conducted 80 videotaped research sessions and tasked the 120 participants with filling out a written empathy questionnaire.

Fultz’s results were surprising.

Participants who rated higher for empathy experienced a lower rapport with people using voice synthesizers. “One interpretation is that the high-empathetic listener felt more distressed by the device and tried hard to be polite by not making eye contact. But that can be received as disinterest, which doesn’t help build rapport,” Fultz explains. “And the low-empathetic person was undeterred by the device and didn’t feel a need to look away. But we can’t confirm this without further research of nonverbal behaviors.”

Still, the study’s findings could change the way health care providers and caregivers of people with physical disabilities are selected and trained.

This winter, Fultz’s work won Best Poster in the undergraduate category from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, beating out hundreds of others worldwide. It was displayed during the society’s January 2017 annual meeting, which was attended by more than 4,000 international members.

But the award, Fultz says, is more about collaboration than individual effort. “The most exciting thing for me is the opportunity to represent OSU and the School of Psychological Science and have them get national recognition for the great research that OSU is doing.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *