Is empathy, not reputation, the key to better cooperation online?

According to recent evolutionary biology research, the capacity to co-operate between individuals is fostered by empathy i.e. by taking into account another person’s perspective. The researchers used game theory driven models, to discover that the capacity and willingness for empathy tended to promote cooperation. This was counter to the previously held belief.

The common understanding was that it was reputation that was the primary reason for co-operating with another person i.e. how your public persona is presented to other people. Relying on reputation to instill co-operation does help to explain why social networks have always placed a the strong emphasis on the accumulation of points, gaming mechanisms and prominent displays of engagement. Slack, a popular work collaboration tool showed that calling out people directly using the @ in front of team members increased the likelihood of that person responding because they knew everyone was watching — that person’s reputation was at stake prompting them to respond when a regular message may not have worked. We are already well acquainted with the powerful effect of social media influencers that’s made possible through the strength of a carefully constructed reputation. It stands to reason that while we believed reputation drove more co-operation we tried hard to emphasize this on our networks.

At first it feels like an obvious conclusion — of course empathy matters because we want to help the people we care most about!

But switching to thinking of empathy as the key factor and not reputation, may have different implications for how we should design systems in the future.

 The empathy factor was always present in real life and online, especially in small closed groups but maybe we didn’t give it enough credit before. While empathy was likely to have had an impact on our reactions, we may not have been aware of it happening and when it had a negative impact e.g. a lack of empathy because of a lack of information that led to negative responses or a manipulation of empathy tricking us into responses we wouldn’t normally make. It seemed natural to help those close to you whose point of view you knew more about but over time you might have felt a tendency for less or more selective cooperation online.

This may be because as networks have grown, there is less space and time to create empathy. People have little patience to think of a reason to care without context. Instead we can use reputation as an easy, fast way to decide whether that person is worthy of help even if it turns out to be a bad decision. In physical groups it’s known the optimum group size is 150 people, after that the dynamic breaks down. This could be as much about losing empathy with certain individuals as the group grows too big to keep track of people as much as the challenges that come with practical organization. Once the group grows too big it’s impossible to know everyone and you end up using another identifer like reputation. However, using reputation alone as a reason to co-operate may lead to less worthy cooperation or even none at all if it turns out its something else that drives us.

That’s not to say, cooperation hasn’t been occurring online — it’s been an amazing force for good and succeeded in helping us to discover opportunities we never would have before. There are many places online where cooperation happens effectively and if you are fortunate to ride that wave, you would reap the rewards and be tempted to conclude it must work for everybody. But for the person coming in without reputation or a well documented history, they will find it hard to breakthrough and get support. The empathy factor, if designed correctly, may be the key to unlocking cooperation for the less well known. Equally, we’ll need to be aware of the way empathy could be misused to lead to cooperation of a negative nature.

Either way it’s important we pay attention to how we deal with empathy online, more so than we have to date.

By designing empathy into our systems we could encourage more co-operate for the right reasons and for the benefit of those people who deserve it. This new research provides some evidence to suggest we need to learn more about the impact of empathy and its connection with cooperation. It could be just the change we need to make for our networks to become more cooperative places to be — for everybody.

Read more on this research here.

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