Lets face it, man is not made to communicate electronically

July 27, 2001

Cell phones and e-mail may have become common forms of communication in the 21st century, but centuries of evolution have made face-to-face communication man's preferred method, says Dr. Ned Kock, director of the E-Collaboration Research Center in Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management.

"There is a principle from evolution theory called the 'repeated use principle,' which argues that we have to repeatedly use a medium of communication, an organ, or a task so that our biological apparatus becomes optimized to use that tool or perform that task," says Kock. "Since we have communicated during most of the past three to five million years by using face-to-face interaction, you have to conclude that we have optimized our biological apparatus for that type of communication.

Kock argues that a lot of today's electronic communications takes us too far away from face-to-face communication, and requires increased cognitive effort on our part. "For example, a telephone allows us to use tone of voice," says Kock. "It's synchronous, so we have immediate feedback on what we say."

But, Kock points out, since the telephone doesn't allow one person to see the other, a bit more cognitive effort is required when communicating over the telephone, as opposed to face-to-face. "Now, if we go to e-mail, there's considerably more cognitive effort required than over the telephone," he says.

Kock did a study in which he compared twenty groups performing complex tasks--ten groups interacting by face-to-face, and the other ten via e-mail. The study indicates that the amount of time cognitive effort (measured as "time") required to convey a certain number of ideas via email is between 5 and 15 times than required to convey the same ideas in a face-to-face conversation.

"In a typical conversation, we exchange hundreds, maybe thousands, of words. If you measure the time it takes for that conversation to take place, and then try to have the same conversation over e-mail and measure the time that takes, you would get a time that is considerably higher than the face-to-face conversation," he says.

Kock contends that it is our innate schemas that make us view it as more difficult to communicate through any medium other than face-to-face. "We have optimized our biological communication apparatus for face-to-face communications," he continues. "As we move away from it, the more cognitive effort is needed."

Man's ability to learn, which is the highest in the animal kingdom, may eventually serve as a counterbalance to our predisposition to use face-to-face communications.

"In other words, if we use e-mail for very complex communications for many, many years, and we avoid face-to-face communications, obviously, we're going to become good at using e-mail for that type of communications," says Kock. "But our predisposition toward face-to-face communications won't go entirely away."

Where is this leading us? Kock believes to the point that we are trying to make electronic communications as close to face-to-face as we can.

He points out that some successful online companies like LivePerson.com are developing technologies that give a company's online customers the impression that they're dealing with a live person over the Web.

"What is the reason for that?" questions Kock. "The reason is because we tend to spend less cognitive effort in communications activities when we have face-to-face like interactions. Even if those face-to-face-like interactions are virtual."

Temple University

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