Empathy in Interviews

Stanka Bozalieva / Friday, January 19, 2018

Synchronize it. Part 3 of Empathy Series.

What is it the underlying value of interviews as a research method?

*cough* Empathy *cough*

Neuroscientist Uri Hasson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, studied this question and discovered an interesting result. He made fMRI observations of people’s brain activity while they were listening to a story. As soon as the story starts, the listeners’ brainwaves synchronize right until the end of it. That seems logical since they hear the same words.


Credit: Uri Hasson

Then he conducted a second experiment. Two groups of people told the same story. However, the story has a different beginning for each group.

Group 1: ”Wife has an affair.”

Group 2: “Husband is unjustifiably jealous.”

The story then continues exactly the same for both groups. Interestingly, listeners’ brain activity synchronized to the story within groups, but not between. Group 1 showed a different pattern than to Group 2. 

Credit: Uri Hasson

It turns out listening is not limited to a simple understanding of the words being transmitted. Rather, it is shaped by the ideas being communicated, in addition to the literal meaning of the words themselves.

To me, this counts as a good explanation of empathy at the biological level, and an important reminder of the value of direct user research methods, such as interviews and contextual inquiries. Moreover, UX researchers should also take Hasson’s work as a cautionary tale. If a single sentence is enough to fundamentally change the pattern of brain activation caused by a simple story, imagine how leading questions might affect the results of a poorly designed research study?

In other words — prepare carefully, sit quietly, cultivate meaningful dialog, listen, sync and make every word count.

More on Uri Hasson’s fascinating research on TED 

More about Empathy and User Research Methods from me!

Part 1 of Empathy Series: What and Why about Empathy

Part 2 of Empathy Series: There’s more to Observation than meets the eye