Empathy. What’s The Big Idea?

This post originally appeared in nathanwiltshire.com 

Empathy. We all know what it is. Empathy is an essential part of being human, of connecting with and understanding other humans. Empathy is a word that most of us instantly ‘get’. Or so we believe.

Recently, I spent time seeking new perspectives on age-old questions. What exactly is empathy? How does it work? Who is actively applying it? What are the implications? Leading me to consider the future and the role empathy could play.

There is no shortage of interest in empathy, which after all represents understanding others, at it’s most raw, it’s most human level. Something we can all relate to, unless we are psychopaths (this I’ll cover later). However, this interest appears mostly superficial. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me – but why empathy? What’s the big idea?

First, let’s clarify a few of the basics. The human brain is wired for empathy (Decety 2011) it’s part of our biology which we share with our great ape cousins (de Waal 2009). All but a tiny percentage of the human race is born with the capability for empathy, or those with broken early socialisation, deemed to have zero degrees of empathy like psychopaths or borderline and narcissists. Or those low on the ‘empathy spectrum’ include people with Autism and Asperger’s (Baron-Cohen 2012).  Ok, so you’re not suffering from any of these conditions, then you probably think of empathy as a big, fluffy, at best vague notion of morally correct behaviour, such as being kind to those less fortunate or responding in a concerned manner to another’s pain.

While these situations can be related to empathy, they do not represent the concept in its entirety. They are responses to our assessment of another’s situation. In my view, empathy is seeking to access insights into the emotions and perspectives of another person and acting with that understanding. Here we differentiate ourselves from the other person, to understand the situation from their viewpoint.

This is no easy task. A compassionate act may not necessarily be brought about and informed by the kind person deliberately seeking to view the world from the person in need. In order to do this, there are many conscious and complex unconscious cognitive brain functions that need to take place, not to mention assessment of social and cultural dimensions of any given situation.

From my explorations, experiments and endless questioning I keep asking myself – why can’t empathy also be associated with regular stuff (not just human suffering) such as business, everyday product design, organisational human resources, the delivery of education, or even government policy development?

If I say ‘innovation’ do you automatically associate it with empathy? The answer is probably no, unless you’re a design thinking aficionado. Well then, here is the big question.

How might we go about fostering and applying real, cognitive empathy to make better stuff, more effective policies, to get the best out of people? To go in search of empathic innovation.

Despite numerous sci-fi authors suggesting otherwise (‘1984’ springs to mind), us humans are yet to crack the code to enable mind-reading (though many governments are having a go, by stalking our electronic footprints!). Cognitive empathy is an experimental field, one which has developed significantly in recent years. Even with knowledge of these advancements, to achieve this level of understanding can be incredibly difficult. I like to think of it in terms of a distance spectrum. The more distant you are from the person or people you seek to empathise with, the more fraught and likely your assumptions will be disconnected and incorrect. Distance is created in a physical sense (for example the gap from one country, or one city to another – two different worlds), it can be in a social sense (here I refer to the gap created by differences in social norms, upbringing, education systems and so on), and lastly, psychological (where our deeply held world views, or what makes us happy or sad) play major roles in our understanding of others. The closer we are on these aspects, the easier it is to develop empathy, and conversely, the further away we are the more steps that are required in the other direction.

This is where the big idea comes in…

Mohandas Gandhi was a man of relatively privileged upbringing, he studied in England (at the time an opportunity reserved for the elite), studied to become and practiced as a barrister. Fast forward several decades, as Mahatma Gandhi became a leading figure in India’s independence movement he was acting out of a sense of injustice and duty to others. What is interesting in the context of this discussion is that Gandhi may well be the world’s first truly empathic leader. Well before modern science was known, Gandhi sought ‘samvedana’, loosely translated to empathy, whereby he sought to internalize somebody else’s pain as if it were his own (Gupta 2010). To do this, Gandhi would immerse himself in the same lived experience as the ‘common man’. He would walk from village to village, in the hottest places in summer, the coldest in winter; he would dress the same, eat, sleep, and experience the same joy and sorrows as those around him. All the while being aware of his own existing bias and ego, Gandhi took deliberate action to limit these potential barriers to understanding.

What Gandhi routinely did was to fully immerse himself in order to remove distance from the people he sought to represent. As hinted at earlier, recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology provide substantial scientific support for these methods. At the time there were many who questioned these methods, yet Gandhi inherently knew these to best understand the perspectives, emotions and needs of those he would lead. Who was the last leader – political, business, or otherwise – who gave up their plush accommodation, their fancy saloon car, and the latest high-end fashion to seek this level of empathy with their stakeholders?

The big idea on empathy is just this – how might we move along the spectrum, to create meaningful solutions to real problems, to close empathy gaps in our technologically advanced yet empathy deficient society?

I see the future as a place where new products and services, educational experiences, even government social policy are created and implemented with those in charge genuinely seeking real empathy with those who would be affected by their actions, whether it be customers, users, students, peers, recipients, patients, stakeholders or Joe and Jane Bloggs. There are literally limitless ways to take steps towards applied cognitive empathy, simple everyday approaches and more immersive approaches following in Gandhi’s inspirational footsteps. Begin by reading these 5 essential books.

Written by Nathan Wiltshire

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