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Ode to Empathy

by Jen Hinton on 15th February 2013

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The discussion around empathy seems to be growing exponentially.  From the huge splash Brené Brown is making with her work on shame, vulnerability and empathy to Jeremy Rifkin’s vision of our moving towards an Empathic Civilization, empathy is becoming a 21st century buzzword.  And rightfully so.

With the emergence of a global civilization, we need to move beyond the “us and them” mentality that lends itself to so much conflict, violence, and self-destruction.  An absolutely essential ingredient for this is empathy.  Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, as the vernacular goes.  It is when I try to see and feel things from your perspective or vice versa.  When put this way, it seems so obvious and simple.  We’ve been taught to do this since we were children, right?   How many times did our parents or caregivers tell us “Treat others the way you would want them to treat you”?  But when we take a deeper look, it is neither obvious nor simple.  In fact, the wave of increased awareness and focus on empathy that we are experiencing is nothing short of a cultural revolution.  We are literally re-writing the human narrative.

Changing the Narrative of Human Nature

To show just how important this is, let’s take a look at human nature.  The substance of human nature has been a central theme of philosophical and political debates since ancient times.  In the 1600s, Enlightenment philosophers and scientists started formulating more “objectivist” views of human nature.  These ideas have heavily influenced the world in which we currently live.  Four hundred years later, our economic and political systems are still based on the idea that rational people act in their own self-interest rather than the interest of others or of the greater good.  That is the foundation of the principle of the “invisible hand” in capitalism.  It also implies that if you are generous, you’re a bit of a nutcase.

However, recent research is turning this all-important premise on its head.  We are quickly expanding the notion of human nature, based on all kinds of new studies and experiences.  It’s not that human nature isn’t selfish, greedy and competitive.  It’s just that human nature is also nurturing, generous, and cooperative (all of which require empathy).  Otherwise, we would not have made it this far as a species.  And the narrow view of human nature as being only selfish, greedy and competitive has contributed enormously to our current self-destructive tendencies, including an economic system that requires growing levels of socio-economic inequality, the devastation of ecosystems, the incredible amount of resources that we put into weapons and warfare, etc.  The stories we tell ourselves about the world and ourselves help create our realities.

For instance, if I believe that the world is a place of abundance and opportunities that help me constantly learn and become more empowered, I will live a very different life than if I believed that the world is a scary, dangerous place and I’m helpless to change it.  Following this example, you can see how different a society founded on a more holistic notion of human nature would be compared to one based on the idea that we are only motivated by selfish, greedy, competitive intentions.  We should not be too surprised at the mess we’re in right now, given that we expect each other and ourselves to consistently act in selfish ways.

Fortunately, we are deepening our understanding of the role of empathy in our evolution, development and biology and this is now expanding our view of human nature.  We are actually hard-wired for empathy!   This has vast implications for our economic, political and social structures.  Even the Harvard Business Review is writing about empathy.

All of this attention on empathy is influencing the way we think about ourselves, as individuals and as a species.  It’s also transforming the way we think about our political and economic systems and how they can address the whole of human nature (not just parts of it) and our real needs.  It is also changing the way we see ourselves as change-makers.  Amidst all of the recent talk in politically progressive circles about the powerful elites being psychopaths, George Lakoff’s ideas about “Frameworks, Empathy and Sustainability” and Philip Zimbardo’s work on “The Psychology of Evil” do a wonderful job of showing us how important it is to empathize with those we find it hardest to understand rather than demonize them.

 

Here are just a few more extremely interesting ideas that are changing the way we think about our species:

Also, more and more organizations centered around empathy, compassion, altruism and generosity are popping up all the time.  Here are just a few: Greater Good, Roots of Empathy, Center for Building a Culture of Empathy,  Random Acts of Kindness, Charter for Compassion, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (not to mention all of the talk and action around sharing and gift economies, like the Post Growth Institute’s Free Money Day.)

* Image credit: If you are the creator of this awesome image, please let me know so I can properly credit you.

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avatar Jen has a very diverse background, with academic and professional experiences ranging from theater to business to environmental studies. Her expertise is systems thinking and she has a contagious enthusiasm for seeking holistic ways of moving beyond humanity’s current crises.

Jen has written 16 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Jen

{ 8 comments }

avatar John Weber February 20, 2013 at 13:26

If we are on the internet with a computer, live in a modern house with all the goodies and do dads that require non- fuel resources and energy and through their use contribute to environmental degradation and global warming, how is this an example of empathy?

avatar Jen Hinton February 21, 2013 at 01:19

John,

Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I completely understand your question, though. I don’t think that using the internet and living in a modern house with lots of technology that burns fossil fuels is an example of empathy. I wouldn’t say that it necessarily inhibits empathy either, though. In my point of view, what people do with the internet and the technology available to them is more important than whether they simply have it or not.

For instance, the internet can be a great tool for empathy, allowing a person in London to find out how a person in a village in Thailand lives. This allows the English person to step into the Thai person’s shoes, to some extent, enabling more empathy. With videos and Youtube, we can easily watch, listen to and learn about the experiences and feelings of people all over the world in all kinds of different situations. However, technology and the Internet can also be used to do incredibly destructive things. So, it’s not the technology itself that has anything to do with empathy, but rather how we choose to use it.

That’s my take on it.

Thanks,

Jen

avatar Darran Trute February 21, 2013 at 05:57

Hi Jen – nice article thank you.

You can definitely see the rise of empathy … and also lets not forget compassion.

As Jeff Weiner is the CEO at Linkedin said recently “Of all the management principles I have adopted over the years, either through direct experience or learning from others, there is one I aspire to live by more than any other… I find this particular principle harder to practice consistently than others. That principle is managing compassionately.”

And in a blog on businessinsider.com – Richard Branson is quoted as saying that “delegation and compassion are the keys to running his $18 billion Virgin Empire”.

And if we bring in
1) the research and findings on neuroplasticity – that the brain changes/rewires in response to experience, throughout our lives
2) that the nature of high performance in workplaces is actually social…
3) with the recognition that empathy and compassion are developmental skills (something we do with businesses)

We have a recipe of fast adaptive change perhaps even driven via businesses…. facinating times!

kind wishes

avatar Jen Hinton February 22, 2013 at 01:22

Hi Darran,

Thanks for your comments! Compassion is certainly not to be overlooked. Compassion, generosity and altruism go hand-in-hand with empathy. And the findings on neuroplasticity are an extremely important part of re-writing the story of human nature.

All of these realizations are changing business and economics as we know them. It’s a good thing that CEOs are starting to realize that compassion and empathy are necessary in business. I’m even happier, though, when I see enterprises whose entire raison d’etre is compassion and empathy. Rather than mere tools used to earn a profit, these essential aspects of our nature are driving us to create businesses and economics that have much higher aims. It is adaptive change, indeed. These businesses are driven by empathy and are, in turn, reinforcing empathy in society in a feedback loop. It is a deep transformation of the economy. Keep an eye out for the Post Growth Institute’s upcoming work, “How, on Earth: Flourishing in a Not-For-Profit World by 2050“.

Thanks again for your insights!

Jen

avatar William J. Kelleher, Ph.D. April 22, 2013 at 11:11

Hi Jen!
Excellent post! Here are a couple of items on empathy of mine that you might be interested in:
1)Cyber Bullying in Connecticut: A Lesson in Empathy
http://internetvotingforall.blogspot.com/2011/11/cyber-bullying-in-connecticut.html
2) On both empathy and human nature – The Human Birth Defect.
Nice review at http://www.amazon.com/dp/1470007282/ref=cm_sw_r_pi_dp_n.4sqb0A9F6TW

Lets talk!

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

avatar Jen Hinton April 24, 2013 at 01:18

Hi William,

Thanks for your positive feedback! I will give you a more detailed reply via email.

Thanks,

Jen

avatar Clara June 7, 2013 at 04:42

Dear Jen,

i just send you an email and i hope you received it. I would like to ask the right to use the picture with the folded hands from your webiste for a research project of mine on empathy, would that be alright?

Thanks a lot in advance!
Kind regards,
Clara

avatar Jen Hinton June 9, 2013 at 01:05

Hi Clara,

I haven’t received your email, but I can respond to your request here. This image is not mine and I don’t know whose it is. But it really is an amazing image. In order to deal with this issue of unknown ownership, I just added this to the bottom of the post “* Image credit: If you are the creator of this awesome image, please let me know so I can properly credit you.” How you choose to deal with it is up to you.

Thanks and keep up the great work on empathy!

Jen

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