Encouraging prosocial behaviour through technology

PhD research


Can empathy and altruism lead to behavioural change? Mara Balestrini‘s research project has to do with understanding the motives behind prosocial behaviour in cities and shedding light to the ways in which technology can enable or augment it.

The use of desktop and mobile applications and wearable devices to track personal data is a trend in full swing. Despite being a plethora of approaches, Personal Informatics (PI) systems all aim to help people collect data and reflect on behavioural information to deepen understanding on their own habits and, ultimately to change them. Most of these systems are designed around the assumption that human behaviour is driven by self-interest (being fitter, sleeping better, maximising time) and that technologies can help users to stay motivated in achieving new habits by setting goals, tracking their data, obtaining rewards or experiencing peer pressure. However, current research within neuroscience, evolutionary biology and social psychology increasingly support the notion that humans are wired for empathy and social cooperation, and that self-interest might not be the strongest motivation for our behaviour. Humans have an innate reward system that encourages and rewards cooperation based on empathic emotions such as solidarity, altruism, reciprocity or compassion.


For some users, or in some cases, the sense of doing something for someone else or for the community in general might be a stronger drive than doing something for themselves. Mara wants to explore a new approach towards PI for behavioural change based on empathy instead of self-interest. Actually, citizens are already engaging in initiatives aimed at providing solutions to sustainability problems. Many of these rely on trust and empathy because users find that doing something good for others motivates them to get fitter.  The Good Gym or The Conservation Volunteers Green Gym are great examples of it.

Mara is working on identifying the citizen-driven initiatives based on empathy in London in order to conduct an ethnographic study, interviews and participatory observations to shed light on: The reasons why citizens engage with such initiatives, if these motivations are sustained over time or if only work short term, if in addition to improving the physical condition of the people there are also other results with a positive social value, if technology can help enhance, strengthen or expand such initiatives and their sustainability over time.   photo credit: PysProblem via photopin cc