You may have heard of a new app hitting the market in the last nine months – the Random App of Kindness, or RAKi.
The app focuses on building empathy among children and teenagers ages 10-17 through a series of nine, evidence-based and scientifically tested mini-games that work to build and encourage empathy. What was the impetus behind the app, and what does main researcher Dr. Sara Konrath, assistant professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy hope will come of it?
Dr. Konrath first became interested in narcissism, and its opposite emotion empathy, while pursuing a Ph.D. in social psychology.
“I’ve been studying extremes of the self and how we relate to others since my undergraduate degree,” she said. “The reason I got involved with empathy, one of the main motivators for philanthropic behaviors like volunteering and charitable decision-making, was that I found in my dissertation that narcissism is rising in American culture. If narcissism is rising, then it’s likely that empathy would be declining over time.”
By looking at levels of empathy among 20-year-old college students in 1979 and 2009, Dr. Konrath did find that empathy was declining over time. However, she questioned why.
“Why should college students say that they were less caring back then?” she wondered. “With the data we had, we could only track a trend but didn’t know why.”
Her next steps were surprising.
“People have been complaining about mobile phones and social networking and how they have decreased levels of empathy,” Dr. Konrath said. “While there is some evidence that people who are more narcissistic use these tools in certain ways, I wasn’t convinced. I think phones have radically changed the way people socialize and live their lives, but I don’t think they’re as bad as people say. I see phones as tools that can be used more purposefully and thoughtfully.”
With this belief, Dr. Konrath transitioned to examining whether it was possible to increase people’s empathy using text messages.
“We’d send a simple, daily reminder to college students to think about others. We found that you can help people improve their empathy through their phones and text messages,” she said.
After that study, Dr. Konrath and her fellow researchers Dr. Brad Bushman, Dr. Rich Tolman, and Dr. Matthew Winslow wanted to use mobile phones in a different way to increase empathy, this time among children and teenagers.
“We know that empathy is teachable. So we looked at studies and ways that empathy could be built,” Dr. Konrath said. “We wanted to design an app that used mini-games grounded in evidence-based practices. We spent time developing it and testing it, with feedback from the children who would use it. Then, we ran a study by having young people aged 10-17 play the app that we designed or a different control app. Two months later, they returned and our preliminary (unpublished) analyses found that the app does indeed help people to become more empathetic. It is possible to use phones in a mindful way that enhances our lives and our children’s lives.”
Throughout the process, Dr. Konrath and her team focused on using evidence-based practices and gaining feedback from young people.
“There was some controversy over what some people saw as violence in the game (e.g. a grandma in one of the mini-games gets hit by a car if you don’t help her across the street). However, players are not rewarded for it and do not get to go to the next level,” Dr. Konrath said. “They are rewarded for helping the grandma. Therefore, it’s not a violent game. We talked to children and teenagers throughout the whole process, and we asked them what they did and didn’t like. They liked that goofy sense of humor. You have to balance how to keep them interested and engaged while also teaching an overall message that it’s good to help someone in need.”
Along with publishing the results of the study, Dr. Konrath continues to find ways to help people engage with RAKi.
“We’re having a contest this fall. Anyone with good ideas about how to use the app for parents, teachers, and youth workers can submit their plans and win cash prizes,” she said. “If you have a good idea and live in the U.S., go to our Facebook page and find more details. We know that this app is high quality and we want to guide people on how to use it if they want to. It’s important to give people the resources they need to be able to use this and other positive empathy-building apps.”*
For Dr. Konrath herself, the development of the app and the support from her fellow researchers, the developers HabitatSeven and HopeLab, and the funder, The John Templeton Foundation, helped launch her academic career and helped her make a difference.
“I was a young scholar setting out and wanting to do something to help. The other researchers, the developers, and the foundation created the opportunity to do so,” she said. “The John Templeton Foundation saw it as important and deserves a lot of credit. I’m very grateful to them.”
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.