10 February 2015

Learning resilience

Who among us, including our learners, couldn't benefit from an added dose of resilience? After exploring the research on compassion, I discovered some ways that we as designers can contribute to our users' resilience...

In a recent article I translate the research on empathy vs. compassion and what this reveals about how we might design technologies that foster resilience.

A handful of trailblazers are already designing technology for resilience and compassion including: SuperBetter Labs, Hope Lab, a large number of Games for Change inclusions and UX for Good (also see Facebook’s Compassion Research Day or Microsoft’s Entendre project).

Empowering users through design would help everyone, but most obviously: care workers at risk of burnout, non-profits seeking to empower action, and designers of social technologies.
How exactly we design for resilience remains a formidable and open research question but early evidence points to a number of leads. Based on research in multiple disciplines, we suggest the following themes as starting points:

Address blame

Compassion is frequently derailed by appraisals of fairness--whether or not we feel others are responsible for their condition (eg. "they're poor because they're lazy", "he's obese because he has no self-control"). As such, designers seeking to foster social change will need to address underlying perceptions of deservedness.

Support feelings of agency

One critical difference between feeling overwhelmed by empathic distress or feeling a compassionate motivation to act seems to depend on how much we believe we can make a difference. The lesson here is that if you need to present users with tragic, frightening or otherwise difficult information, do so in a way that emphasizes empowerment, hope and ways they can help. A great example is the way charities have moved from exclusively showing imagery of overwhelming suffering (eg. children dying of starvation) to imagery of people being empowered by charitable assistance to improve their lives (eg. a community thriving thanks to clean water access). A great digital example is Half the Sky, the game which raises awareness of very serious issues in a positive way that empowers users to help.

Provide opportunities for altruism

Practice makes perfect and research shows that giving people opportunities to practice altruism online or in games can translate into the real world. From studies on people helping strangers after a virtual superhero experience, to research on how pro-social games increase pro-social behavior, studies suggest that using technology to give people the opportunity to help others (or perhaps the experience of being empowered to help), inspires them to help others in the real world.


Users already hack their world to foster feel-good emotions by sharing inspirational stories through social networks; for example, the fireman who revived an unconscious kitten (21 million+ views on YouTube) or Glen James, the homeless man who returned $40,000 to the police. $250,000 was later crowd-sourced to buy James a home and his story isn’t the only evidence that inspiration leads to action. Research has shown that inspiration leads to volunteerism and that altruism can spread through social networks. When we are inspired or awed by a great act of virtue, we seem to be motivated by a renewed feeling of faith in human goodness and our ability to play a part.

Support compassion training

While we can design digital environments to foster compassion as a temporary state, cultivating compassion as a trait across the population and in the longer term will probably require other methods. At this point, practices like compassion meditation are the most effective available. Just as technologists have helped to increase access to mindfulness training at home, at school and in the workplace, digital technologies that can support compassion training in these same places will play a critical role.

It's clear that if we are to effectively tackle the complex global problems facing us now and in the future, we'll need to stock up on both compassion and resilience as a population.  If you're interested in learning more about designing for resilience, empathy and compassion, then check out: