If amid COVID-19 your company has found ways to continue operating through video conferencing, but at the end of the day you find yourself feeling a little extra tired, there’s a good explanation for this. Unfortunately, there’s also nothing you can do about it.
“People have been calling me amid the pandemic and telling me that they have all of this time to do whatever they want—maybe write songs, or books, or whatever—but they can’t, because they have cognitive blocks,” says Liraz Margalit, Ph.D., a digital psychologist who specializes in behavioral economics, decision making and behavioral design. “This cognitive block is because we’re missing human interaction,” she says.
In psychology, the theory of mind (ToM) refers to the ability of humans to attribute mental states to ourselves and others. As such, ToM is one of the foundational elements for social interaction and it stems from non-verbal cues, Margalit says, including such things as facial expressions and body gestures. Those reactions account for around 70 to 80% of interpersonal communications, she says, and in order to capture and interpret them, our brains include specialized mechanisms. When we interact through digital tools, such as video conferencing platforms like Zoom, those mechanisms are impeded. From this, we get what many have come to refer to as “Zoom fatigue.”
Zoom fatigue results from endless searching by our brains, as our mental faculties look for missing cues—cues that fail to translate digitally, she says. For this reason, “In Zoom meetings, 20 minutes is like an hour in face-to-face interactions, because it exhausts those mechanisms,” Margalit adds. “In order for you to understand me, I have to work twice as hard and your mechanisms have to work twice as hard because you don’t see my micro-expressions. You don’t see my whole body.”
And while technologies like VR are more immersive, providing full, 360-degree views, preliminary indications suggest that those experiences fail to solve the problem of missing cues.
“You’re looking through these glasses and you see yourself in an entirely different world, but there is this phenomenon—an after effect,” Margalit says. “Even though you’re in a real environment, something feels wrong.” For this reason, following VR experiences, people report feeling tired and without energy, she says.
Those drawbacks don’t make digital interactions useless, but it’s unreasonable to expect to get the same results from Zoom that we get from direct, interpersonal interactions, she says. While video conferencing platforms have in many ways been the “heroes” amid a pandemic, the idea that we’re able to live healthy, normal lives through virtual connections is a bit of a misnomer, Margalit and other experts suggest. In Israel, for instance, where Margalit lives, she says that in order to feel more connected, people left devices running in the background. (With around 80% of the population vaccinated, the country has since returned to a more normal status.) “They were having coffee, or doing other things at their house, and Zoom was there just to ensure they weren’t alone,” she says. Yet overall, cases of depression have risen, she says.
“As a psychologist, I have to tell you that if there is one thing that we’ve learned through COVID-19, it’s that we aren’t there yet,” Margalit suggests. “That is, we aren’t ready to transform our everyday lives through the digital world—not completely.”
Through what she describes as a “great quickening,” over the past year or so, adoption of technology has leapt forward by what’s more like 10 years—including across the door and window industries, many suggest. Within months, individuals who were previously slow to adapt learned to do things like conduct sales meetings, grocery shop and even host doctor’s appointments online. In the end, those adaptations could prove to be powerful, as researchers like Margalit explore how technologies like augmented reality (AR) and VR can be used to connect consumers with products and brands. Her latest venture leverages behavioral models and conversational artificial intelligence to allow companies to build psychological profiles for customers to personalize business interactions. Among the long-term possibilities are AR and VR experiences that tailor shopping to the specific preferences of each customer. In the meantime, however, “Our brains haven’t developed as fast as our technology and we’re still social creatures,” she says. “The same way that we need air and water, we need face-to-face interactions. We need interpersonal interactions.”