There’s an old episode of “Seinfeld” where Elaine’s dating an aide to a mayoral candidate who passes an idea of hers on to the would-be mayor -- name tags.
As in, if everyone in New York City wore name tags, Elaine reasoned, the citizens would be a little friendlier to one another. When the candidate runs with the idea, he’s ridiculed by the entire city -- Frank Costanza notwithstanding -- and Elaine’s beau is canned.
When told about this policy proposal, John Kiat, a psychology grad student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was ready to campaign for the fictionalized David Dinkins. That’s because the research paper he had published in NeuroImage this month aligns, to a degree, with the name tag theory.
The study, co-written with Kiat’s frequent research partner, UNL sociologist Jacob Cheadle, focused on the impact that knowing someone’s name or not can have an empathetic response.
Titled “The impact of individualism on the bases of human empathic responding,” the study involved gauging the response of two sets of participants viewing a series of images of faces in pain.
It also involved $5,000 hairnets.
The devices -- a more accurate name for them is electrode nets -- are used in UNL’s nascent-but-groundbreaking Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, where the effects of concussions are being studied via electroencephalography (EEG). It's noninvasive method of recording the neural activity firing and not firing throughout the brain while the device is being worn.
At UNL, they are not just available for concussion research -- scholars in departments throughout the university system have yet to go through any big red tape to access them.
Kiat said knowing that he could use the EEG at UNL influenced his decision to pursue his doctorate here. It also has inspired some of the studies he and Cheadle have had published, including a recent one which he began to devise during a viewing of one of his favorite films, “Schindler’s List.”
In the film, those on the list were frequently referred to by number -- rather than name -- by those who would determine their fate. To assign a number to a person, Kiat said, is commonly thought of as a distancing technique.
But had anyone measured it? Not with an EEG they hadn’t, Kiat said.
“We always anecdotally talk about it,” Kiat said. “‘Oh, the reason why we give them numbers is because we don’t care about them.’ But it hadn’t actually been looked at. It’s one of those things that we say, but research-wise, no one’s done it. No one’s actually looked at how having a name for someone versus not having a name for someone changes how we empathize with them.”
With this study, Kiat said they tried to isolate as best they could the difference between responses to named and unnamed characters and nothing more. They recruited 26 participants, all students in the psychology department, averaging about 20 years old, to be split into two groups.
Participants in both groups wore the EEG nets while viewing computer-animated images of people -- male and female, white and black -- who were first presented on-screen with resting faces that then blossomed into expressions that had experienced a pain-inducing event akin to, say, a dictionary dropped on a toe. (Those animations were all rendered by Kiat, who made a similar agony-laden face when he was describing how long that took.)
The participants were asked to assign a degree of pain on a scale of one to four that each person experienced on-screen. There was one difference in the two groups. One-half of the participants were introduced to each of the animations with screens that showed their names -- Alexis, Chloe, Tyler, Ben. The other half got the same introductory screens, but instead of names, there were Xs -- XXXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX, XXX.
The final pain ratings weren’t noticeably different between the two groups, Kiat said. But the brain activity they used to get there sure was.
Kiat said he’s passionate about using input-output data to measure the subjects that are seemingly un-measurable, like passion for instance. Or love, or empathy. The way we react to watching someone get hurt, he said, is based on an array of variables that our brains process: Do we know the person? Is she old? Is he using crutches? All those factors matter, and he said he wants to help figure out exactly how they matter.
“When inputs get to the brain, that’s the part where almost all of the neuroscience in the world is focused now,” Kiat said. “Once these get in, what happens here?”
With the EEG, Kiat said he was able to see that those who knew a name for the characters on screen had a significantly different neural response to the task. The brain activity showed they honed in on the characters in a way that allowed the researchers to chart how they would rate the pain at a remarkably high rate, he said.
“When faces have names, the empathy appears to be rooted in their identity,” Kiat said. “When people are processing the faces, how they responded to each face appeared to predict how empathic they would be toward that person, even before the person expressed any pain. That was the really cool part. So just by seeing how a person responds to a (named) face, we could predict 50 percent of the empathy. And in neuroscience, that’s almost unheard of. We’re happy if we can predict 10 percent of something, 5 percent of something.”
Kiat said the study doesn’t show that you will necessarily commiserate more with someone whose name you know. But the neurological data does appear to suggest that Ben’s identity matters more to you than XXX’s does, which is one reason he thinks that a city full of people wearing name tags would, at least temporarily, be a friendlier one.
“I think the world would be a better place, both because we would care about people more, if we knew their names, but I think more strongly because people would know our names,” Kiat said. “I think that might end up being the more powerful effect.”