Students: Rebekah Fodale & Jenna Herzog

Project: Feeling The Distance: Exploring Novice Designers' Perceptions of Psychological Distance Towards and Empathy Induced by Problem Variations

Poster: Horizontal (PDF) | Vertical (PDF)

Institution: Lafayette College

Major: Mechanical Engineering / Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Advisor: Rohan Prabhu


The accelerating depletion of natural resources has necessitated the design of environmentally sustainable engineering solutions. To meet this need, designers must actively incorporate considerations of environmental impact in their design decisions. Prior research suggests that the effects of climate change are often perceived to be psychologically distant, and this distance could inhibit individuals from actively engaging in environmentally sustainable behavior. Little research has investigated the impact of problem framing based on designers’ psychological distance on design performance, especially in environmentally sustainable design. Furthermore, research suggests that empathy development could be an effective mechanism for bridging psychological distance. However, little research has assessed the utility of empathy-invoking problem framing in sustainable engineering design practice and education. Our aim in this study is to explore this research gap by comparing student designers’ perceptions of different problem formulations. Specifically, we tested the effects of variations in (1) the socio-spatial context and (2) the empathy focus of a similar design problem. The effects of these variations on the perceived psychological distance and empathy-invoking nature were tested through a 2x2 between-subjects experiment. From the results, we see that the variations in the problem formulation did not relate to either the perceived psychological distance or the perceived empathy-invoking nature. These findings suggest that issues related to environmental sustainability tend to be perceived similarly, despite differences in their socio-spatial context and empathy-invoking nature.

Rebekah Fodale

About Rebekah Fodale

Rebekah Fodale grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and is currently a senior Mechanical Engineering major at Lafayette College. Passionate about people, Rebekah loves learning about the intersection of psychology and technology. Her research with Dr. Rohan Prabhu focuses how a person’s ability to empathize and relate with the subject impacts the effectiveness of the solution they design. When Rebekah is not studying engineering, she enjoys playing violin or climbing trees with her friends. After graduation, Rebekah hopes to pursue a career that works directly with people to solve problems that start from the inside out.

Jenna Herzog

About Jenna Herzog

Jenna Herzog is a junior at Lafayette College majoring in Chemical Engineering. Motivated by her passion for the environment and social justice, her research with Dr. Rohan Prabhu in the Knowledge and Individual Differences in Design (KIDD) Lab explores designers’ perceptions of the psychological distance towards and empathy induced by design problems in the context of environmental sustainability. Alongside her research as a Clare Boothe Luce Scholar, Jenna is the Director of Food and Housing Insecurity for Lafayette’s Landis Center of Community Engagement where she works with local community gardens to organize weekly volunteer opportunities and related education and reflection events. Additionally, Jenna is President of the Hillel Society at Lafayette, and enjoys hiking, traveling, crocheting, and reading.