On Empathy

Paul Bloom argues that empathy has its drawbacks. It's biased, innumerate, concrete, and myopic. Don't believe it? Consider the reactions to the Newton mass shooting as compared to shootings in Chicago.  It's called the identifiable victim effect. We're drawn to some individuals more than others. We respond more empathetically to people like us. And because empathy is focused on individuals and insensitive to numbers, it's more susceptible to bias.

Okay empathy can be misguided, but isn't it better than nothing? He believes that's mistaken - because he argues that it's focused on current costs at the expense of future costs. 

What's an alternative?  Peter Singer has started a movement called Effective Altruism - it involves both the head and the heart.


Additional reading:

Daniel Batson - Altruism in Humans

Frans De Waal - The Age of Empathy

Simon Baron-Cohen - The Science of Evil


Leslie Jamison - The Empathy Exams







Stress, Empathy, and Anxiety

I'm a sensitive person. Thanks to a rough childhood, I tend to be hyper-aware of people and their emotional states. As you can imagine, this sometimes stresses me out. There are a few studies that hint at the interplay here:

Anxiety can reduce empathy (speaks to an anxious state)

Anxious people tend to be more empathetic (speaks to the anxious trait/personality)

Here's a great explanation of these seemingly contradictory studies by the good folks over at the Greater Good center.

To note:

"They found that stress-prone people were good at cognitive empathy—in other words, accurately identifying inner states based on outer clues. But there’s a critical caveat, for the purposes of our discussion: They weren’t as good at 'affective empathy.' That’s a science-y way of saying that they could recognize an emotion, but they weren’t necessarily feeling it themselves.

This makes perfect sense, in the context of the research to date. Stress mobilizes the body’s resources to survive an immediate threat. Among other effects, it helps narrow our attention and zero in on the threat. If you’re prone to be socially anxious, meeting strangers stresses you out.

That’s why anxious people can appear to be shy; they’re simply avoiding stressful stimuli, often going deep rather than wide in their social networks. Walking into a party or asking for help from people can take enormous courage. In those moments, their bodies are flooded by hormones that help them focus on threats—threats that are embodied in the faces of other people. This helps with cognitive empathy.

But I bet the reason why their affective empathy goes down is that they’re momentarily denying themselves access to their own inner states. Their attention sharpens and goes outward, which makes perception more accurate. But at the same time, they’re instinctively protecting themselves from getting caught up in the feelings they detect. This might help make socializing emotionally manageable. It might also make them seem cold or just a little stiff, in addition to shy."



The Empathy Trap

Empathy is all the rage these days - in business, in design, in life.  But there's a cost. From the article:

"Situations of unequal power can also create imbalance between partners in giving or receiving empathy. Consider an extreme condition, Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to express loyalty and empathy toward their captors. Upon rescue, a newly freed person expresses understanding for the captors’ actions, sometimes even the desire to remain in touch with or to serve them. Battered women and abused children often form similar bonds with their abusers.

Sadly, in relationships marked by unequal power, those in the low-power position are more likely to defer to the needs of those in the high-power position. Doing so helps them hold on to the attachment—at the cost of becoming the architects of their own disenfranchisement."

What struck me most in the article was that last line. Attachment - that basic need - can become a bad habit that is difficult to shake and can lead to a lot of self-destruction - in all its forms.

Capable or Culpable

What are you capable of? I was talking with a friend about the horrific actions of a harried mother. I'm not a mother, but while my friend protested that she would never do such a thing, I thought, "I could see how that happened."

Is it because I'm a horrible person? No. It's because I know that under stress people are capable of things they never thought possible. And if they're not in touch with their dark sides, those parts of themselves that they'd rather not face, they're capable of acting out of their own worst instincts.

I believe, if you don’t think you’re capable of something terrible – you don’t know yourself well and if you don’t know yourself well, you’re more susceptible to doing the thing you think you’re not capable of doing.

The Empathy Gene

Healthy individuals can tell if a stranger is trustworthy or not in 20 seconds, according to new research out of UC Berkeley; suggesting empathy may have a genetic component. In fact, "the listeners who got the highest ratings for empathy, it turned out, possess a particular variation of the oxytocin receptor gene known as the GG genotype." You can test your instincts here.

Were you able to guess who had the GG gene?

The Roots of Empathy

I know from my own experience how powerful it can be to see and interact with a baby that is not your own. My nephew has taught me a lot about empathy and love. So I was so thrilled to learn about this program: Roots of Empathy. It was started in Canada, is worldwide, but only now coming to the U.S. The program teaches emotional literacy to children by bringing babies into the classroom. 


To learn more, read the founder's words here.

Draw an E

Social scientists devised a way to determine if bosses are empathetic. You can use it, too. Here's how you do it: Ask your boss (or anybody really) to use her forefinger to draw an E on her forehead. Give it a try yourself now.

Done? The way a person draws the E - either facing herself or another, tells you all you need to know about the perspective taking of the finger's owner. If the E faces out so another can read it as an E, the finger owner is taking the perspective of another and therefore demonstrating more empathy.

To understand why empathy counts in leadership, read Daniel Pink's take here.

Books in 5 Quotes: Daniel Pink

A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink outlines the Six Senses found on the right side of your brain, the new, evolving world will require: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning.

His book in Five Quotes:

1. “The left hemisphere [of the brain] is particularly good at recognizing serial events – events whose elements occur one after the other – and controlling sequences of behavior. The left hemisphere is involved in controlling serial behaviors. The serial functions performed by the left hemisphere include verbal activities, such as talking, understanding the speech of other people, reading and writing. The right hemisphere doesn’t march in the single-file formation of A-B-C-D-E. Its special talent is the ability to interpret things simultaneously.”

2. “Pursuits devoted to meaning and transcendence, for instance, are now as mainstream as a double tall latte. In the United States, ten million adults now engage in some form of regular meditation, double the number a decade ago. Fifteen million practice yoga, twice the number in 1999. American popular entertainment is so awash in spiritual themes that TV Guide heralds the rise of ‘transcendental television.’”

3. “Stories are easier to remember – because in many ways, stories are how we remember.”

4. “We can see this yearning for self-knowledge through stories in many places – in the astonishingly popular ‘scrapbooking’ movement, where people assemble the artifacts of their lives into a narrative that tells the world, and maybe themselves, who they are and what they are about, and in the surging popularity of genealogy as millions search the Web to piece together their family histories. What these efforts reveal is a hunger for what stories can provide –context enriched by emotion, a deeper understanding of how we fit in and why that matters. The Conceptual Age can remind us what has always been true but rarely acted upon – that we must listen to each other’s stories and that we are each the authors of our own lives.”

5. “Seeing the big picture is fast becoming a killer app in business.”

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future