Empathy Beyond the Echo Chamber

Listen to the podcast version of this article here.

One of my goals for 2017 is to make more of an effort to step outside of my echo chamber. It was with this in mind that I listened to a CBC Radio interview with the provocative title Against Empathy: Yale psychology professor says too much emotion leads to bad moral decisions.

As the Education Lead at Twenty One Toys, empathy is my bread and butter. We create toys and workshops that help players aged 6 to 99 practice, assess and better understand a variety of creative skills, with empathy being chief among them. Nevertheless, I was determined to listen to this interview with an open mind in order to learn from a perspective that, upon first glance, was very different from my own.

The interview features Paul Bloom, Yale psychology professor and author of the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. In it, he makes a number of lucid, logical arguments grounded in clear evidence. This begs an important question — why is my understanding of the utility of empathy so very different from Bloom’s? The workshops we have spent the last 4 years refining are, like Bloom’s book, based around a series of logical arguments anchored in well-documented evidence. Was one of us just misinformed?

The answer, much like empathy itself, requires nuanced exploration. Right from the start of the interview, it was clear that my difference of opinion with Bloom was not based on the conclusion of his arguments, but rather on where these arguments began. As Bloom admits, “a lot depends on what you mean by empathy”. On this point, we’re in definite agreement.

Recognizing that we often interpret the same things very differently from our collaborators, exploring why this is, then applying what has been learned about each other are the key challenges in our Empathy Toy workshops. And since we’re firm believers in practicing what we teach, let’s apply this same process to help understand my divergence of opinion with Bloom.

Identifying Assumptions

In our Empathy Toy workshops, participants work to identify the assumptions built into their language and patterns of thought. Through dialogue and game-based experimentation, they learn that misunderstanding often springs from the fact that we all have slightly different mental models of the world. When using the Empathy Toy, they experience first hand how small assumptions made at the start of a game, if left unchecked, can lead to compounding levels of confusion and disagreement.

With this in mind, it’s important to understand the initial assumptions that both Bloom and I have made before jumping to the conclusion that we must be on totally opposite sides of the argument.

Bloom’s definition of empathy is premised on the assumption that it is exclusively an emotional reaction. This assumption is understandable; there has been extensive research into humans’ empathic reflexes, with studies into mirror neurons offering fascinating insights into why we automatically connect with the pain of others. From the assumption that empathy is entirely emotional and reflexive, it is logical for Bloom to reach the conclusion that the “vicarious suffering” caused by empathy leads to emotional, short sighted, and fundamentally misguided actions such as sending teddy bears in response to the horrors of the Sandy Hook massacre.

The assumption that empathy involves automatic emotional responses is true; however, this is not where empathy ends. Other thinkers, including Jeremy Rifkin, Brene Brown and Roman Krznaric, argue that emotion is only part of the equation, and that both learning and rational choice are required to fully develop and leverage our natural capacity for empathy. Brown echoes one component of Bloom’s argument when she states that “one of things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try and make things better”. However, she cautions that this emotional impulse to jump immediately to a solution, with little understanding of the needs or feelings of those for whom the solution is meant, is a major barrier to empathy. She would also be quick to point out that giving teddy bears to a community in mourning has much more to do with sympathy than empathy. This act of kindness was motivated by sorrow rather than understanding.

The cognitive dimension of empathy plays a vital role in the strategies of some of the world’s most vibrant organizations. Design juggernaut IDEO has had international success with its Design Thinking methodology — a repeatable, logical process that starts with empathy. The Harvard Business Review recently noted a correlation between levels of empathy in different organizations and their success in the marketplace. In another article, the HBR went as far as to argue that empathy is the most important skill taught at Harvard Business School. Stewart Butterfield, the cofounder Flickr and CEO of Slack, has attributed the multi-billion dollar success of his companies to the culture of empathy that exists at their foundation.

When these institutions talk about empathy, they are not referring to an automatic, emotional response, but rather a logical process of collecting the information necessary to better understand the needs, reactions and feelings of others.

Learning from Difference

While I disagree with the scope of how Bloom defines empathy, it would be irrational for me to conclude that I am somehow right and he is wrong. Instead, it is much more valuable (and, I would argue, more empathic) to learn from this difference in perspective.

In his opening remarks in the interview, Bloom states that the act of “putting yourself in other people’s shoes” has no value beyond the emotional satisfaction it brings, and leads to “biased decisions, innumerate decisions, and often to cruel decisions”. Central to this argument appears to be the assumption that imagining yourself in another person’s context privileges emotion over reason. Although I would argue (alongside Rifkin, Brown, Krznaric, IDEO, and many others) that this act of imagination requires much more conscious thought than Bloom seems to suggest, his warning about the often overlooked risks of putting ourselves into the shoes of others was well taken and helped me to rethink how we tend to define empathy.

The idea of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is empathy’s de facto definition. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. It was our Creative Technologist Joi McConnell who first got me thinking about the paradox presented by this definition. She pointed out that it can actually be misleading, even narcissistic, to imagine myself in someone else’s position. This is because doing so focuses attention on how I would feel in that same situation, distracting me from the much more complex process of trying to understand how that person actually feels. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes might actually reveal more about me than it does about them.

Out of this creative clash of differing perspectives about what empathy is and isn’t emerges a more holistic, nuanced definition. Understanding others will always require emotional attunement because our emotions often drive our thoughts and actions. Understanding human beings is impossible without understanding human emotion. However, as Bloom and my colleague Joi both astutely point out, we must be cautious about extrapolating from our own emotional reactions and assuming that others must feel the same as we do. This is why it is essential to combine our natural capacity to emotionally identify with others with the learned ability to construct rational arguments based on data.

Empathy is neither an emotion, nor an entirely rational process — it’s a skillset that requires both.

Applying What We’ve Discovered

It was very important to have my long-held assumptions about empathy challenged. I still don’t agree with Bloom’s ultimate conclusion about empathy, but I did learn from his perspective, and will be incorporating his ideas into my work. In particular, I plan on drawing from his trenchant examples of what happens when our reflex to emotionally identify with others is untethered from rational discourse.

The interview with Bloom offered the opportunity to take a few cautious steps outside my echo chamber. In doing so I discovered new ways of looking at empathy, and, interestingly, found much more overlap between our ideas than I had initially assumed. Bloom’s call for rational compassion, while differing in some key ways, is similar to how IDEO and its ilk discuss the cognitive dimensions of empathy.

It is important that we have common vocabulary so we’re able to share and build off of each other’s ideas. However, as we have seen hundreds of times in our Empathy Toy workshops, even the most seemingly inert descriptors are often interpreted differently by different people. This is why, at the end of the day, I’m less concerned about the specific terminology that we use, and much more interested in understanding what we mean. That is precisely what empathy means to me — because, whatever you call it, the need to better understand and learn from each other has never been more important.