15 Oct

Hiding Your Feelings Is About to Get Harder

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In last Sunday’s New York Times business section there is a fascinating, yet disturbing piece called, “In a Mood? Call Center Agents Can Tell.” It talks about new technology that can assess not only a person’s current mood through analyzing his or her voice, but also reveal many personality characteristics. The idea is to train call center representatives to look at these read-outs as they are happening and tailor their responses (and attempts to sell products) to the emotions and personality type of the caller. But is this use of emotion-reading technology ethical and will it work or backfire?

Author Natasha Singer gives the example of Steve Job’s pseudo-happy conversation about Apple’s first typeable touch keypad, preserved on a video clip. Jobs apparently feigns happiness while his underlying emotions suggest “loneliness, fatigue and emotional frustration.” The piece further states that the company, Beyond Verbal, created this voice analysis of Jobs, also concluding his voice conveys “sadness mixed with happiness. Possibly nostalgia.”

Although the article notes that this emotion-reading voice technology has not yet been perfected and implemented it is expected to be in the near future. There is an abundance of research in the literature on how emotion is expressed through the voice no matter how much a person may want to hide it. This emotional vocal tone and phrasing is called prosody. And the new technology is designed to analyze your emotional state instantaneously.

I understand that call centers will not be using this reading of emotion to do therapy, but rather to “manage” unhappy consumers or sell them new products. Nonetheless, I can vouch for the fact that people know when they are being read and managed and universally dislike it. Over the years I have found that the more direct and honest I am about my observations, the better. My patients do not generally want me to silently read their emotions and not share this information in some way with them. Knowing that when you call to complain about your internet service, or a damaged parcel, some anonymous person will be reading a computer-generated analysis of your emotions is beyond invasive and creepy.

Having incorporated neuroscience findings on emotion into my approach to treatment for over fifteen years, I understand that emotions are revealed constantly and cannot truly be hidden. The literature confirms that we all really know what each other is feeling, even if only unconsciously. And the closer our relationship, the more we know and experience at a conscious level. Even the currently untrained call center rep senses your emotions and either responds empathically, works to manage you, or rejects your emotional experience.

However, using emotion-reading technology to intrude on personal privacy and manipulate customers is appalling and only adds to our collective sense of being herded and controlled. My hope is that just as people are typically not fooled by the current customer rep strategy of apologizing in a servile manner every two minutes, they will also quickly sense and reject attempts to read their emotions for monetary gain.

To read the full NY Times article, use this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/business/in-a-mood-call-center-agents-can-tell.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1381844678-LKDgBPmAaqJUz+p7n/SmOw

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