Xuan Zhao, winner of the 2017 Q&pAy small grants competition
SPSP: Hi, Xuan. Congratulations on winning the 2017 Q&pAy research contest, and thank you for speaking with us today. In your biography, you state that being a social psychologist is your way of more deeply understanding the world and trying to make it a better place. What about social psychology helps you do that, and how does that project fit in?

Xuan: I’ve always been fascinated by human social interaction, and social psychology gives me the methods and tools, as well as the theories, for why people act the way they do with family, friends, colleagues, strangers, and other groups of people. Many things that social and personality psychologists study are super-relevant to society. In the specific case of my project, I want to understand how to encourage and cultivate empathy. Backed up with scientific research, I believe we can create a more empathic society for the future.

SPSP: That’s a really lovely sentiment. So, why do this research, and why do it now?

Xuan: For a few years, I’ve been interested in how recent technological advancements can reshape human relationship in unprecedented manners. On the one hand, I can see why technology might erode empathy (e.g. people hiding behind various screens and becoming increasingly disconnected with others around them), but I’m also interested in how technology provides unique opportunities to promote empathy. Last year at a department dinner with a guest speaker, I happened to learn that his group designed a device to help people track their own heartbeat in order to monitor their stress level, but when the speaker accidentally felt another participant’s heartbeat, he thought it was a unique and powerful experience. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of feeling another person’s heartbeat and developed my research proposal around it. I like this idea because it can be scientifically tested, yet there’s an expressive and artistic component to it as well. And ultimately, it’s a poetic expression of my belief about human relations, that we can unify people across boundaries (me/you; us/them) and close the gap. It’s especially relevant now as we deal with division and conflict in our country and around the world. I have even thought of designing an art exhibition around this theme, where people could feel other people’s heartbeats in different contexts, like a firefighter on duty, a refugee floating on the sea, a teacher at the podium, a Muslim worshiping his god, a Christian worshiping his god, a white person, a black person... Regardless of how we look and what we believe, deep in our hearts we are all the same. Sadly I haven’t had time to set up this exhibition, but I really think it could be a fun idea to explore.

SPSP: I find the sentiment behind your research wonderful. What do you think are some practical, real-world implications of the research?

Xuan: We’re seeing the emergence of devices that support intimate relationships – Apple watches and rings where you can feel your partner’s heartbeat, and I’d like to see their use extended beyond partners to help people rethink human relationships. Take entertainment as an example. You could watch a documentary and feel the protagonist’s heartbeat to augment the empathic experience. And there are many more potential applications. You can use it as an icebreaker for team-building exercises, or evoke concern and forgiveness in order to resolve conflicts, or simply gain better understanding of others’ emotional states… There are countless user scenarios limited only by our own imagination.

SPSP: That’s very interesting. To switch gears a bit, what was it like hearing your name announced as the winner of the competition? Can you tell us about that experience?

Xuan: I was thrilled. I was happy because I saw that the “sharks” also recognized the possible impact of the project, so it was a confirming and reassuring message. Besides, this is a very empowering experience — the grant increased my independence and sense of responsibility. Before, my research was all being done on my advisor’s grant, but now I will be making decisions about how to spend my own money – and I love it.

SPSP: How will the grant money advance your research?

Xuan: I’m using the money mostly for participant payment, and it will help me develop well-powered studies with sufficient sample sizes. In fact, we’re starting with our first participant group this week! Career-wise, It helps me to transition from being a graduate student to being an independent researcher. It’s a pathway to independence.

SPSP: Thank you for sharing so much with us today. Is there anything else you’d like members to know?

Xuan: Yes! I’m currently looking for post-doc positions. So I’d love to get in touch with those interested in sponsoring my research (please check out my website), or collaborating on research projects in their labs!