Socially-Distant Socialization and Perceptions of EDA
This study took place during the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 global pandemic and resultant shelter-in-place orders in California. Results related to RQ1 (i) allow for a better understanding of the communication ecosystem study participants were experiencing at the time of data collection and their reactions to sharing and receiving EDA information.
108 responses to the online recruitment survey were received and 88 of these respondents reported not living with the close other they answered questions regarding. The mean age of these 88 respondents was 22.259 (standard deviation 3.110), 69 self-identified as female with the remaining 19 identifying as male. When answering questions about a close other person, 67 respondents described the person as a friend, 13 as a romantic partner (partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse), 5 as a family member (family, parent, sister), and 2 as other or no response. Respondents were asked to rank their frequency of using six different methods of communication: face-to-face, video call, text message or messaging app, over the phone, by mail, and other from most to least frequently used, both before and after the SIP order. Looking at those 88 who did not report living with their close other, “face-to-face” frequency decreased the most after the SIP order compared with before. Video calling and text messaging had the greatest increase in frequency, followed by phone calls, mail, and other.
From these 88 respondents, 9 pairs (N = 18 total) of friends who did not live together accepted an invitation to participate in the follow-up sessions which constituted the main portion of the study. These sessions included a group interview with questions about how their communication with one another had been affected by the SIP order, and what their experiences communicating with each other had been during the pandemic. All participants were located in the US, living at least part of the year near a large west coast public university, and spoke fluent English. Other characteristics of these 9 pairs are shown in Table 1.
When asked about their communication behaviors with one another during SIP, participants voiced many of their frustrations with CMC technologies. Although some common likes or advantages came up including acknowledging the convenience, appreciating the flexibility afforded by asynchronicity, and it’s higher degree of control with respect to self-disclosure. Comparatively many more words and time were spent on participants’ disappointment regarding CMC. These responses largely confirm long-standing knowledge of CMC technologies studies demonstrating their status as insufficient and unfulfilling substitutes for in-person interaction. Though CMC serves as an important supplement to these relationships for its advantages like asynchronicity, convenience, and control of self-presentation, it has yet to meet the standard for replacing face-to-face meetings. Latency and interruptions from device malfunction, a lack of important interactional qualities like real-time responses and awareness of others’ emotional cues and behaviors, and feeling locked-in by the limited capacity of CMC systems are significant hurdles for CMC researchers and developers to overcome. Interestingly, when asked how participants understood their friend’s reaction to something shared asynchronously such as a message or post on platforms like Facebook or TikTok, answers like “I can picture it”, “I can hear their voice”, or “I can imagine them snickering at their phone” were common among all interviewed pairs.
Initial Impressions of EDA
What role might EDA play in the context of these problems posed by CMC that complicate feeling connected when physically apart? RQ1 (ii) sought to address this by investigating the interpersonal processes of social biosensing in distanced communication between friends. In previous research, social biosensing has been posited as a novel social cue, affording qualities like intimacy and cognitive empathy which can be difficult to convey over CMC. Conveniently, biosensory data can be transmitted and displayed over distance, but how people would react to this unfamiliar cue is unclear. We can begin by examining how participants responded to seeing their own biosensory data and their study partner’s across the different stages of the study.
Results indicated that participants were roughly split on whether their EDA information behaved how they expected it to, but nevertheless participants reported high interest in observing both their own and their study partner’s EDA information, with slightly more interest about their partner’s over their own. Although this study did not include enough participants to make quantitative conclusions, there was a notable trend for participants to associate EDA more with arousal-related emotions like interest, entrancement, amusement, and boredom upon observing their partner’s EDA information compared to when they had seen their own.
As part of the questionnaires administered both after participants observed their own EDA and after they saw their study partner’s EDA, participants responded to several multiple choice rating scale questions. 11 out of 18 participants reported their own EDA information changed as they expected it to, and 13 out of 18 participants said the same about their study partner’s EDA data. Participants also reported a slightly higher degree of interest in their study partner’s EDA information than their own. In addition, participants were asked to rate how much they associated changes in EDA with each of 27 different emotions sourced from Cowen and Keltner (2017). Responses to these scales were collected once after participant’s saw their own EDA information, and then a second time after viewing their partner’s. Figure 3 depicts responses to these emotion ratings at these two time points.
An important note here is that the sample size is low to draw conclusions from this kind of quantitative analysis, evidenced by the high standard deviations. Additionally, although both participants in a given pair watched the same video, which video this was varied between pairs and as described later in these results participants reported that the content of the video limited what they could interpret from the EDA information. Despite these caveats, this visualization is an illustrative representation of how participants’ meanings of EDA changed between the two time points. Emotions like entrancement, interest, amusement, and boredom appear to have been attributed more to EDA after seeing a friend’s EDA information which are emotional states associated with high or low arousal.
In summary, participants reported significant problems and drawbacks using CMC to maintain social connection at a distance, some of which social biosensing may be poised to ameliorate such as conveying emotional cues which participants currently report imagining in lieu of seeing or hearing directly. With regards to EDA in particular, participants were highly interested in observing their own and partner’s EDA responses, and their associations of EDA to different emotional states seemed to shift after seeing their partner’s EDA data. Critical to understanding the outcomes of this kind of system in the wild is the question of how people create and update a meaning for previously unfamiliar biosensory information when observing their own and someone else’s. The next section utilizes the qualitative data collected in this study to delve into this question.
Meaning-Making with EDA
The remainder of the results of this study seek to address RQ2 by unpacking precisely how participants came to assign a meaning to EDA information over the course of the study, what role EDA played in interpreting their partner’s experience, and what kinds of use cases socially sharing EDA could fill. The occurrence of analogical as well as dialogical intersubjectivity can also been seen in these results by
Temporal Meaning-Making Typologies
In addition to the limited quantitative analyses above, open responses and interview data further illuminated how participants’ conceptions of EDA information changed over time with additional exposures. The questionnaires administered after exposure to their own as well as their partner’s EDA information included open response questions asking participants to describe how the EDA information related to [their/their partner’s] experience watching the video, whether there were times when [their/their partner’s] EDA information changed in an unexpected way, and whether they learned anything about [their/their partner’s] experience from seeing the EDA information. From participant individual responses to these questions, as well as analysis of the group interviews, a typology of temporal changes in understanding of EDA emerged. Using a lens of intersubjectivity, these typologies indicate patterns in meaning-making about EDA in a social context via observation of another’s EDA and through conversation about EDA with their partner in the paired interview. An additional noteworthy point is that it was not necessarily the case that both members of a given pair fell into the same typology, in fact this was only the case for 4 of the 9 pairs.
Broadeners was the first of these typologies, which were those who broadened their definition of EDA over the course of the study. The 6 of the 18 participants who fell into this category began with one or more inner states such as “stressful emotions” or “enjoyment” they felt corresponded with changes in their own EDA as they had watched the videos. After seeing their partner’s EDA, participants of this typology expanded the set of triggers they believed EDA to take, either by adding similar or related states e.g. “calm” as the opposite effect of “stress”, or reducing the specificity of the states like moving from “negative emotions” to “strong emotions”. In the final stage of the group interview, these participants tended to agree with their partner’s assessment of the correlates of EDA and incorporating these to their own model of the signal. A1 was a good example of a broadener, beginning with a concise association of EDA with stress after seeing their own EDA information and then expanding to association with “the emotional parts” of the video:
“when I watched mine I thought it was more like stress but then after doing hers I’m more like eh well that wasn’t really stressful, but like it just went down [...] so I guess that’s why I changed it to more emotional rather than just stress” - A1
Participants in this group highlighted the role of dialogical intersubjectivity in which meaning was created within the interaction between the participant and their partner, not solely from their own individualized interpretations.
Stablers was next most common typology, comprised of those who were fairly stable in their conceptions of EDA throughout the phases of the study. The 5 participants in this typology typically started with an understanding of EDA that wasn’t tied to particular emotions but rather general patterns of inner states such as EDA as indicate of “emotional ups and downs”, “following the intensity”, or simply a “response” to the content. With exposure to their partner’s EDA as well as the conversation with their partner in the group interview, these stablers interpreted new changes through their existing definition, seeing specific emotions as instances of their more abstract existing conceptions of EDA’s meaning. E1’s descriptions of their understanding of EDA over the course of the study nicely illustrates this typology. After their first session seeing their own EDA E2 wrote:
“It seems to reflect what parts of the video are most emotional to me, since the EDA noticeably changed when I switched to a more serious video” - E2
After seeing their partner’s EDA response to the same video they watched, E2 noted particular emotions like shocking and exciting, but maintained a more general underlying understanding, stating:
“The EDA definitely peaked when there was a shocking or exciting piece of the video. It generally had a downward trend as the video went on but peaked during certain points.” - E2
And finally in the group interview, E2 maintained the inclusion of shock or interest, but functionally kept with her original more abstract understanding akin to “significance”:
“I did see [my EDA] kind of waver up and down and then it would kind of peak any time something interesting came up or shocking and the same when I watched Veronica’s video, I think the EDA changed color at one point whenever there was a peak maybe to denote that it was significant.” - E2
This group of participants were most representative of analogical intersubjectivity, wherein participants created a meaning from observing their own EDA information and analogized their partner’s experience using this maintained definition.
Puzzlers was the final typology that emerged in temporal qualitative analyses. This set of 4 participants experienced growing uncertainty and skepticism with further exposure to and discussion of EDA. Participants of this type either began and kept with the notion that EDA is “random” has “no correlation” with emotion, or at times held associations with particular emotional states but were contradicted by later events. In either case, by the end of the study these participants maintained a sense of confusion or puzzlement. Notably, participants in this category tended to be those who at some point in the study noticed or suggested EDA could be affected by non-emotional, external factors like temperature or the tightness of the wristband. One participant who fit this model well was E1 who started out with a sense of skepticism that only solidified as the study progressed. In the questionnaires following the first session with her own EDA displayed, E1 wrote:
“I can’t say I have enough evidence to make a conclusive statement. I guess it felt like my EDA information could fluctuate quite rapidly. [...] I think when I felt cold, my EDA levels increased” - E1
After viewing their partner’s EDA information, E1 had a slight notion of a stable meaning but maintained a degree of doubt regarding the connection between watching a video and EDA activity. In the group interview, E1 summarized her view that she felt EDA was inconsistent and affected by too many factors to make a strong statement:
“if you’re asking me what factors affect it, what increases or decreases it, I think there’s just a lot of variables at play and especially like seeing [E2] talk about my reading versus what I saw in her reading like there’s not really any consistency per se, so yeah.” - E1
As these participants did not assign a particular meaning to the EDA information, intersubjectivity played less of a role without the need to engage with a particular meaning. A few described further confusion when hearing their study partner’s interpretations of EDA which could be an example of dialogical intersubjectivity, but whereas “broadeners” used their partner’s perspective to modify their own, for these “puzzlers” it fueled their continued skepticism.
The remaining 3 participants did not fall neatly into any of these typologies and, importantly, are indicative of the inexhaustive quality of these findings. Two of these participants seemed to change their idea of EDA significantly at each time point of the study, and the other neither articulated an idea of EDA’s meaning nor stated uncertainty in the interview. These and what are sure to be others are avenues to further understand in subsequent research.
These patterns in participant responses suggest an intersubjective account of EDA in social contexts. EDA took on new meanings from participants’ experience with it expanded from observations of their own EDA responses, to exposure to those of a close friend, and finally in comparison and active conversation with their friend. Furthermore, the greatest magnitude and clarity of change seemed to occur when participants were in discussion with their study partner in the group interview, suggestive of the power of communication and exchange with others with regards to meaning-making of an unfamiliar signal. Intersubjectivity and its significance for understanding social meaning-making of EDA is delved into further in the Section 5.
Roles of EDA
Outside of the temporal framework, further analyses of the in-depth group interviews using emotional, values, and in vivo coding techniques revealed two distinct roles or functions EDA played in the process of interpreting their study partner’s internal states: EDA as emotion and EDA as persona.
EDA as Emotion
By utilizing emotional coding one notable outcome was the wide range of emotional words or other references to inner states participants used when describing EDA. From interview transcript analysis, approximately a third of the instances where participants referred to an emotion word when describing EDA fell into a a set of specific, valenced emotional states e.g. “funny”, “fear”, “excitement”, and “disgust” and the other two thirds as a set of broader terms relating to more general arousal: “interest”, “investment”, “attention”, or “strong emotions”. This breakdown is in line with the common typology of “broadeners” described in the previous section, where many participants ended up with a more encompassing understanding or personal definition of EDA that more closely aligned with general arousal than specific emotions. Although participants viewed a list of emotions when responding to the associations questions, this list spanned a very wide spectrum of emotion words and thus was not a likely source of priming of one type of emotion over another.
A notable proportion of pairs, 4 of 9, had some conversation about how their ability to assign meaning to the EDA was limited by the emotional range of the video content they watched. B1 described this nicely when reflecting on the dog groom video she and her partner watched and saw their EDA responses to:
“I feel like it depends on the video. If it is something that’s more open to judgment, I wouldn’t really know how they would be feeling and how their EDA would be changing. But I feel like these videos are rather one-dimensional, like this is just a cute dog. There is only a small range of emotions that people can feel based on these videos.” - B1
B1 is clear here that the only contextual information she had to judge EDA on was a cute dog video, from which she found herself unable to answer higher level questions about EDA as the context of understanding was so limited.
EDA as Persona
Beyond seeing EDA as associated with their own or their partner’s particular emotional experience, another common theme among participants was the interpretation of characteristics about a person from their EDA. Instances of this finding came up directly in interviews with 6 of the 9 pairs. In these cases, participants often spoke of learning more about “a new side” of their study partner that they didn’t have evidence of from other existing sources. G1 stated this when she described her thoughts on G2’s EDA response to a video of an impassioned climate change activist:
“I had this image that [G2] is pretty calm and collected but then through what I see in his EDA from what’s shown in the video I could see that he can actually be affected really strongly by videos which is interesting because maybe if I hadn’t seen that I wouldn’t have expected that of him [...] I think I learned how you know in a way he’s very empathetic and his emotions relates to what is conveyed in the video in a way” - G1
Here, G1 spoke to how specific activity in the EDA data occurring alongside particular events in the video content gave her insight into a piece of her friend’s persona. Much less frequent, but important instances of reading personal characteristics from EDA were those of participants concluding or questioning qualities about themselves from seeing their EDA information. Participants were sometimes surprised to see their EDA response, particularly in comparison to their partner’s, and in a few cases this resulted in questioning a currently held self-conception. D2, for example, stated:
“when I was looking at [my EDA], I would think oh you know this is emotional but mine didn’t change and I was like oh maybe I’m not as empathetic towards their situation as I thought” - D2
Participants’ Suggested Use Cases for EDA
Some final findings from the interviews worthy of note were participants’ own ideas for applications of socially sharing EDA and the next steps they felt would aid in their own understanding of EDA.
Suggestive yet Indirect
One concept generated by participants centered around using EDA to indicate and display the degree of emotional response in ways that are difficult to do with traditional forms of expressions like language. This in part relies on the aforementioned finding of seeing EDA as objective or true and thus a way to prove one’s feelings. D2 described how EDA could help in suggesting the level of their emotional state to their parents without providing specific detail:
“if I’m having an emotional conversation with my parents, I’m not able to always describe what I’m feeling, there are things that I don’t want to bring up, [...] anything that could go deeper, so I feel like it could be correlated that you would want them to understand some things, but in other ways they don’t need to know everything at once” - D2
In a similar vein, D1 described an idea to use EDA to help decide what to watch in a scenario where one or both people may not want to be direct with their opinions:
“I was thinking you could use it to determine whether or not you both like the show and would choose whether or not to watch that again together versus watch it individually. So it could be a way to find something you both truly like rather than someone saying “oh I really like this, would you watch it with me” but the other person is like “ehh I don’t really care” - D1
In both of these cases, EDA appears to be serving the role of direct communication at times when that communication may be difficult to bring oneself to engage in. While it is unclear if EDA would solve the problems posed by this scenario, it seems participants felt some utility in a sort of third party reporting of their emotional state. Related to this ambient display of emotion, the mention of wanting to see others’ EDA responses to scary movies came up in more than half of the group interviews. Fear in response to entertainment seemed to be an easily accessible example for participants to imagine EDA being shared. One participant spoke about wanting to use EDA to prove to their friends that they were significantly affected and thus didn’t want to watch scary movies. Others talked about the enjoyment of scary movies being tied to witnessing one another’s reactions to the tense and shocking moments, and that EDA could be a way to further this form of interpersonal sharing.
Invitation to Reflect & Talk
A common reaction to participants seeing activity in their partner’s EDA was not necessarily jumping to a conclusion about their partner’s specific feelings, but instead that it simply made them wonder, question, and want to ask their partner about how they were feeling. As H2 stated:
“ just like seeing it fluctuate and then when it did, like when it was higher or lower I was like what was her reaction at this time, it just made me question” - H2
Here H2 didn’t make a jump to how H1 was feeling when there was EDA activity, but rather it just made her wonder and question what it was about that moment that affected H1 in some way. This was a new experience for some participants, as talking about their feelings wasn’t commonplace, sometimes due to a lack of opportunities or triggers to do so. In fact, two participants mentioned therapy as a specific use case for EDA for its ability to display something unspoken and presumably talk about it with a therapist. In reflecting on what she had learned about her study partner during the study and why she hadn’t known this previously, G1 touched on a possible reason:
“I feel like in a way, we’ve only known each other for a year and mostly we don’t really talk about like emotions in our conversations, we tend to just talk about school and activities or memes or things that are funny, we don’t really have a lot of like heart to heart conversations about how we feel and yeah I think that could be a reason why we didn’t know this about each other.” - G1
For G1 and her study partner, EDA was a way to learn more about the emotional sides of one another that have otherwise been left unexplored. EDA alone didn’t constitute learning something about one’s partner however, instead it functioned as a trigger for the reflection and eventual conversation that helped improve knowing one another. D2 stated her sentiment that the conversation was crucial to understanding one another’s EDA response:
“I think like a conversation would be needed rather than just seeing the graphs because we could be feeling entirely different emotion but maybe some sort of an emotion shows up on the graph. But yeah you really don’t know if it’s the same one so you would need a discussion” - D2
This focus on reflection was also observed in a broader sense when participants compared their experience in the first session watching a video for the first time while their graph was simultaneously displayed, versus the second when watching the same video again with their partner’s EDA embedded. In the latter case, having already seen the content once themselves, participants could spend more time focusing on their partner’s EDA graph and reflecting on how the graph and video content were connected.