Can Technology Expand Compassion?

December 6, 2013

ccareToday HopeLab participated in the inaugural Compassion and Technology Conference hosted by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University.

Drawn from a rapidly emerging field, presenters from around the world convened to share their perspectives on the power of technology, in particular, games, web apps, smartphones and tablets, to promote resilience and compassionate action in the world.

Can technology help spread compassion, connection, health, and well-being?

Given the ubiquity of technology and the shared optimism of conference attendees, it’s not surprising that the answer was a resounding yes. The challenge now is to figure out how best to drive the psycho-social and behavioral outcomes of a well world.

Snapshot of Three CCARE Presenters 

Today’s agenda featured experts from a broad array of research fields and disciplines.

Emma Seppala, Ph.D. and Associate Director at CCARE, shared some of the science behind compassion research. “The best predictor of human happiness is social connection,” said Seppala. “Compassion is fundamental to our health and well-being. We’re wired for it.” Not just psychological well-being, but physiological well-being, too. “Low social connection results in inflammation at the cellular level,” she added.

Assistant Professor and Ph.D. at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Sara Konrath studies the underlying physiology of empathy and altruism. While “genetic factors explain up to 50% of individual differences in empathy, empathy itself is less a trait than a muscle,” said Konrath. “It can be improved with exercise and practice.”

Monica Worline, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and President at Vervago. Worline presented her work on compassion in the workplace. “Compassion boosts productivity and performance, improves service levels, and fuels innovation.”

Designing for Resilience and Compassionate Action

Janxin Leu, Ph.D. and Director of Product Innovation, and Fred Dillon, Director of Product Development, presented HopeLab’s research and product development model. According to Leu, “Mobile technology can support purpose, connection and a sense of control in one’s life.” In case you’re wondering how important these elements in one’s health, here are some key takeaways, “Loneliness is lethal,” said Leu.

“Having a strong sense of purpose can improve genomic expression,” she added.

Next, Dillon discussed HopeLab’s development approach, which incorporates innovative uses of technology and direct feedback from customers in a process that’s highly iterative. “Incorporating insights from customers as we develop products has been a critical aspect of our success,” said Dillon, referring to HopeLab’s Re-Mission 2 online video games and the Zamzee activity meter.

One of the design practices at HopeLab is focused on increasing options to make more informed decisions. In app development, people typically document the requirements of the project, then hire a single designer to begin work, narrowing the range of design approaches they’ll see before engaging users for feedback.

Instead of starting with functionality deliverables, HopeLab (1) shrinks the scope of work, (2) gets a lot of ideas by using the crowd-sourced platform 99 Designs, and then (3) selects one design or “aspects of different designs mashed up to produce a more ideal direction,” said Dillon.

After product design options have been sourced, HopeLab puts them to the test by asking users to learn what they like and don’t like.

Entirely consistent with today’s theme, Dillon closed his talk by observing, “Working this closely with our users on a product is itself an act of compassion.”

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Update 1/9/2014

You can now view Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the Compassion and Technology Conference on YouTube. HopeLab’s Fred Dillon and Janxin Leu start at the 26:30 mark in Part 2.