Quickie Post — Academia is Not Going to Lead Us Out of the Wilderness

Squid sorting, Guangzhou

A paper came across my Twitter feed today, which was fascinating — or actually, meta-fascinating. Written by a trio of researchers in response to concerns about childhood masking, three Italian academics wrote a piece on the potential consequences of having children NOT have access to facial expressions due to mask usage. It’s in the Journal Frontiers of Psychology and you can read it here if you wish.

I’m not really criticizing the work — and am actually glad they did it. But what’s telling (or more correctly, meta-telling!) about all of it is the following:

  1. It’s a work about kids reading emotions.
  2. It only looks at what I call the simplex notion of reading faces — the kids look at faces and guess the emotion.
  3. It’s definitely deep down in the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme of empirical work.
  4. The main reason to read faces — empathetic connection at whatever level of development a person involved is at — isn’t mentioned at all. Not one time.

The short version of the experiment was that the recruited children were shown pictures on a smart phone, and asked to guess from a list what emotion they were looking at. There are results showing that for younger ages, kids were definitely impaired in their ability to guess; less so as they got older.

Such a study, without knowing the researchers directly, does a couple of things. It could be that the researchers are aware of empathetic development of young people, and facing the difficulty of actually measuring a more duplex (signal and receiver) combo, chose the path of least resistance. Actually measuring empathetic response is wicked difficult, and has to be at least part of why there’s little research out there on this topic.

But I think it more likely that it likely just didn’t occur to them. There’s no mention anywhere in the piece of how that might affect relationship development. There’s certainly no mention of the word “empathy” in the entire piece.

This piece just goes on the pile of academic research that is evidence that if we’re going to count on academia to lead us out of the collective intelligence wilderness, we’d better think twice. Even when investigating low-level phenomena (ID’ing faces it pretty straightforward) related to empathy, it’s another dry run.

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