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We all need other people and we need to have meaningful relationships with others. Research shows that children, who do not have any contact with other people die. Social isolation also leads to premature death in adults, especially among the elderly. People, who have experienced a loss of their loved ones say that they have lost a part of themselves. Often, they would give up a lot to be able to talk to or to be able to hug the departed people, even for a brief moment. Agata Cieślar, psychologist specializing in new technologies and graduate of SWPS University, talks about the importance of interpersonal relations.

Humans are social beings and in their lives they need presence of other human beings, who are a source of strength and support, who believe in them and who respect and trust them. The support group does not have to be available at a stretch of a hand, because the power of imagination enables people to replay a supportive situation. This refers not only to real people, but also to fictional or even imagined characters, such as protagonists of favorite books or, as it often happens with kids, an imaginary friend. A supportive relationship is bilateral. People also need others, who they can admire and hold as role models.

The social sphere of dialogue

According to American psychologist Harry Sullivan, from the moment of birth, people are immersed in a social sphere ‒ a network of real and imagined social interactions, which determine, in a way typical to homo sapience, their behavior. These close relations and acquaintances, not only real but also imagined and virtual, as well as human ability to draw on this source, constitute human ability to deal with challenges and everyday situations. Social psychologists define these relations as support available to an individual in difficult and stressful situations. While looking for help, people tend to call upon their family and friends. These social relationships comprise the support network. The support may be provided in many ways.

Emotional support is focused on the mood improvement and reduction of stress, for example a friendly conversation or behavior which turns attention away from a difficult situation and provides hope for overcoming the difficulties.

Assessment support aims to make someone think better about themselves, appreciate his or her strengths and ignite self-respect. This type of help may include positive feedback about the person, their work or showing gratitude and appreciation.

Informative support is rather directed externally. In this case the clue of support lies in provision of required information that helps to complete tasks and act effectively in daily or difficult situations.

Instrumental support includes providing necessary resources that can be used to face a stressful situation. For example financial support, a gift of time or helping someone to complete a task.

Dutch psychologist, Professor Hubert Hermans, sees dialogue as the fundamental principle of human functioning. Conversations with other people show you their perspectives and help you to get to know yourself. Research shows that internal dialogue may be as effective in solving a problem situation, as an actual conversation with a friend. In a study that I conducted, participants were asked to imagine a difficult situation and to hold an imaginary dialogue with friends or to write down a list of possible solutions to the problem. Next, the participants assessed how effective this type of support was for them. It turned out that the imaginary dialogue won over the list of possible solutions.

Chuck Noland, the main character in the movie “Cast Away”, played by Tom Hanks, used the same technique. Tom Hanks was awarded an Oscar for the role. On a desert island, Chuck finds his best friend in Wilson ̶ a volleyball produced by the Wilson company, when in desperation he hits the ball with a blooded hand. The bloody imprint of the hand resembles a human face. To deal with loneliness, the forlorn crash survivor conducts long conversations with Wilson. When Wilson falls overboard and drifts away during Chucks final attempt to leave the island, Chuck completely falls apart. Probably all people talk to themselves or to their loved ones about crucial matters or problems to better prepare for an important meeting, a presentation or to find a solution to a nagging problem.

Close relationships, not only real and imagined, but also virtual, and the ability to take advantage of them define our ability to cope with challenges and everyday situations. These relations translate into social support networks, i.e. assistance for individuals in difficult and stressful situations.

Technology takes away

Contemporary lifestyle includes the inevitable lack of time, being constantly in a hurry and multitasking. People play various social roles, at work, in private and family life, and in spare time, therefore they lack distance, precision and time for meetings with others. Prior to the Internet and the mobile phone era, you could visit your friends without an appointment. There were no messages that could be read instantly. Nowadays, people usually check their friends’ Facebook profiles to find out how they are doing and they converse with friends on messenger instead of meeting in person to talk.

Technology provided us with wonderful possibilities, such as direct contact with any place on the planet and access to 40 percent of the whole global population, because this is how many people use the Internet. Unfortunately, technology has also taken away a lot from us. Our reaction to the loss is our attempt to stop running. The emerging trends of slow life, such as slow food and slow sex, and trendy Internet and mobile phone detox sessions in nature, show how much we need to stop rushing. In this “new” fast life, we conduct imaginary conversations with ourselves or with the loved ones, who are not available at the stretch of a hand or the urgency of the matter does not allow us to discuss the problem during a real meeting. Is it possible to fill the lonely emptiness that has dominated our times and the gap in human relationships that have been irrevocably taken away from us by the speed of technological and civilizational development? What have we gained in return?

Close relationships, not only real and imagined, but also virtual, and the ability to take advantage of them define our ability to cope with challenges and everyday situations. These relations translate into social support networks, i.e. assistance for individuals in difficult and stressful situations.

Prior to the Internet and the mobile phone era, you could visit your friends without an appointment. There were no messages that could be read instantly. Nowadays, people usually check their friends’ Facebook profiles to find out how they are doing and they converse with friends on messenger instead of meeting in person to talk.

Technology gives

Social media may be helpful in developing social networks and looking for support, because where else than on LinkedIn can you build a network of professional relationships and share your successes. You can find hints on what to wear or how to furnish and decorate your home on Instagram and on Pinterest. Facebook allows you to find friends from your primary school, keep in touch with friends and discover cousins who live on other continents.

Luckily, developing virtual social networks is not the only thing that new technologies enable. You can also meet with every one of your friends from social media in real life. Thanks to the social media you live in the world where your personality, ideas, preferences and conversations are collected on digital information carriers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Theoretically, someone could retrieve your “mind files” and build their clones, which would allow you to conduct your internal conversations externally.

Psychology indicates that internal and interpersonal dialogues shape individual’s relationship with the world and are responsible for the quality and the character of this relationship. It is hard to imagine human development without a conversational relationship with other people. Internal dialogues may be useful in the decision making process, they can help in completing tasks and in understanding someone else’s point of view, i.e. they may strengthen and support motivation to undertake action.

Future life?

We know that the technique of coping with difficult situations that include a real, imaginary or virtual interlocutor are effective. So where do the new technologies fit in? Aren’t we nearing the time when robots will be able to solve our problems equally well as they play a round of the traditional Chinese board game Go? Until recently, the game has been deemed to require not only strategy skills, but most of all intuition, which in a prevalent opinion, rendered the game impossible to master by computers. Yet, AlphaGo ̶ Google Artificial Intelligence, has recently beaten Lee Sedol, the chmpion player of the game, in the Google DeepMind Challenge Match. Will machine learning, a discipline whose main goal is the creation of an automatic system able to improve itself by using collected data for new knowledge mining, develop as far as to play a role of a friend in a conversation, when the real friend is not available?

In one of the episodes of the futuristic television series Black Mirror there is a vision of the future, where technology is able to reconstruct a deceased person in a form of an android, which accompanies the family to the end of their lives. In another television series Sense8, by the Wachowski sisters and J. Michael Starczynski, eight strangers are mentally and emotionally linked. They are able to connect with each other, permeate each others worlds and help each other in difficult situations, by exchanging experiences and strengths. They are a social support network, whose capabilities to help each other have been extended to include paranormal abilities.

Technology is not far behind the concepts that appear on television or not far behind the innovative idea of a virtual interlocutor. In Japan, a popular robot that replaces a television presenter, when the need be, seems to prove this point. Matsuko-roid somewhat resembles a female sumo wrestler and speaks fluent English and Japanese. She lectured on innovative technologies and, at the same time, she was the subject of these lectures, during the most recent edition of Cannes Lion 2015, a festival of creativity and new technologies. The fear that robots will take the place of humans at the workplace is common. Luckily without a human television presenter, Matsuko-roid would not be needed, because she is just a novelty for now, but in several years, who knows?

Technology is also helping vision-impaired individuals to easier move around. A voice assistant, Wayfinder, available via an earphone, helps vision impaired people to move around the city, informs them when to turn the corner and when to be extra careful. Moreover, American scientists are working on Artificial Intelligence, which will be able to recognize psychological conditions, such as depression or PTSD, based on conversations, face expressions, body language and other behavioral indicators, and will be able to suggest an appropriate professional support. The newest technology created by Microsoft, HoloLens - mixed reality smartglasses, can place a hologram of another person by your side. Wearing the special headgear, you see a representation of an interlocutor and cameras map his or her location. The hologram fully mimics human movements, speech and behavior to ensure that you can meet, talk to, give high-five or shake a hand of the other “person”. Just like in the Star Wars movie.

The article was first published in the Polish edition of „Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/16”
Magazine available here »

 

About the Author

258 agata cieslar

Agata Cieślar – graduate of SWPS University with a Master’s degree in Social Psychology of IT and Communication. Lecturer in interaction human-computer at the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology. UX Lead & Innovation Champion at Roche. Currently, she is pursuing her doctoral degree in psychology, at SWPS University.

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