Catching emotions

A newborn begins to cry, inducing her neonatal neighbors to join in an ensemble of high pitch cries. A few years later, that child runs to hug her classmate in pain. As a teenager, she enjoys hanging out with her friends. Sometimes she laughs with them, even though she is not sure what they are laughing about. A few years later, this teen is a professional designer interviewing a user for the first time. Her colleagues say she is good at building an “emotional connection” with her clients. She cannot tell for sure why, but she feels she connects with the emotions of others and can sometimes experience on her flesh the sensations and feelings described by someone else.

We could analyze this story through different theoretical lens, but today we will focus on a specific concept called emotional contagion. Emotions are contagious like a contagious disease. Emotional contagion refers to the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, postures, etc. with those of another person1. We can find ourselves picking on someone else’s ways of sitting or copying the other person’s facial expressions without realizing it. Emotional contagion allows us to catch emotions, or in other words, experience emotions similarly to someone else. This can foster cooperation and unsolicited help (like the girl who spontaneously hugs her friend in pain).

To measure emotional contagion, we need to utilize something that allows measuring how well a person mimics and synchronizes with someone else. This can be achieved through technologies such as brain imaging and psychophysiology2.

Some of the most used brain imaging techniques are electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Both techniques register different brain-related signals with differences on their temporal and spatial resolution. Both are used to measure brain-related responses to some stimulation. Thus, we could use some of these techniques to investigate how an observer’s brain reacts when seeing someone else experiencing pain3, grabbing an object4, gesticulating emotional expressions5, etc. These brain reactions could be compared to, for example, someone else experiencing pain. We could compare the observer’s reactions to the person in pain and determine the similarity of brain electrical activity or activation of brain circuits.

Physiological activity measures the activity of the autonomous nervous system. It can be measured through multiple methods that register the electrical activity of the heart, skin conductivity, muscle contraction, etc. Empathy researchers make use of this technology to register involuntary reactions of their participants. Why is this important? Because ideally, we want to obtain unbiased measures from people. If they are asked to consciously report how likely are they to be affected by someone else’s emotions, they could present themselves more sensible than they actually are or the other way around, undermining their real capabilities to become affected by someone else’s affect. How is this technology used? Researchers can, for example, register the heart signals of people telling an emotional story. These signals could then be compared to those of the teller6. The more similar the signals are, the higher the emotional contagion of the observer to the teller.

How is all this related to engineering and design? Well, getting to know a user, their circumstances, difficulties, wishes, is all crucial for successful design outcomes. However, the usual way these needs are explored rely on the exploration of subjectivity and the use of several heuristic tools that designers have developed. We believe that brain scanning and measuring physiological signals could be used to test and develop new design methods that result in better user understanding. Quantifying user-understanding could provide strength to the argument that a better knowledge of the user leads to better design outcomes, better technology.

This task is not easy, but our team has started to investigate these ideas combining a series of methods for it. If anything is clear to us at this point, it is that capturing what makes the mutual understanding between users and designers is not easy, but we have also uncovered new research questions and ideas which can set the road for new and exciting research.

Our young designer has discovered that she connects well with her users. Thanks to the exciting collaboration between design and psychology, she may be one step closer to understanding one mechanism behind her valuable skills. Moreover, she may be equally closer to channel her skills to the creation of new and more humane technology.

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