Are We Losing the Ability to Read Each Other's Emotions?

A new study finds striking changes when we put electronics aside.

Posted May 05, 2015

Kzenon/Shutterstock
Source: Kzenon/Shutterstock

The ability to recognize another person's verbal and non-verbal cues is key to successful social interactions. But new research suggests that technology may be interfering with our ability to detect how others are feeling.

A study published in the 2014 issue of Computers in Human Behavior found that digital media decreased children’s ability to read other people’s emotions.

The researchers provided sixth-grade students with a pre-test to establish their baseline abilities to read emotions. The students were shown photographs and videotaped scenes in which the audio was silenced. The participants were then asked to infer people’s emotional states based on facial expressions and non-verbal cues.

Half the students were then sent to a camp where they lacked access to digital media and spent their time doing traditional camp activities—such as hiking, archery, and learning about nature. The control group went about their daily activity as usual—including their normal access to digital media, which, for these students, averaged about four-and-a-half hours on a typical school day.

After five days, both groups participated in a post-test. The kids who had gone to the camp showed significant improvement in their ability to recognize emotions. The control group only showed a slight improvement. The authors concluded that the increased face-to-face interaction at camp improved that group's social skills.

What Could This Mean for Adults?

Although the participants in the study were children, that doesn’t necessarily mean adults are immune to similar declines in social skills. After all, the participants were pre-teens who should already understand the basics about feelings, and already possess a certain range of sophisticated social skills.

Could too much time behind a screen interfere with adults’ ability to recognize emotions? I think it can.

Social skills are like any other skills we develop. You have to practice them to get better. And when our faces are buried in our phones and the majority of our conversations take place behind a screen, it’s bound to have an impact on our face-to-face interactions.

The ability to recognize how someone else is feeling is an essential skill for adults in the workforce. Selling a product to someone? You’d better be able to notice if that person is growing disinterested in your pitch. Want to ask your supervisor for a raise? You'll be most successful when you can observe what type of mood he or she is in. 

Of course, our ability to notice how other people are feeling is an essential skill in our personal lives, too. How many marriages break down due to poor communication? Understanding how to read a partner’s non-verbal cues can greatly influence relationship satisfaction. 

Sharpening Those Social Skills

The good news is, the kids in the study who went to camp experienced improved social skills after only five days away from their electronics. Removing ourselves from social media, email, and newsfeeds for a day, a week, or a weekend or two each month may help improve our social skills.

Or what if we just made a conscious choice to add more face-to-face socialization to our schedules? Maybe socializing with friends in-person rather than over social media, or spending more time speaking with colleagues rather than networking over LinkedIn could be a step in the right direction.

We all come across people we think are “clueless” when it comes to social skills and recognizing emotions. However, we’re not always that good at recognizing our own shortcomings in the social skill department. Exchanging emoticons for face-to-face contact could help all of us improve our emotional intelligence.

Amy Morin is a pscythoerapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, a bestselling book that is being translated into more than 20 languages. To learn more about her personal story behind the viral article turned book, watch the book trailer below.