While it features heavily as a buzzword among business leaders, entrepreneurs and educators; Empathy, and the reliance on it as a prime-mover of social conscience has some very significant shortcomings.
Empathy; the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either, without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
I am speaking at the moment of the kind of empathy that focuses on the empathiser feeling (or believing that they feel) the emotional state or experience of another.
This definition of empathy, as opposed to a more high level of cognitive and rational understanding of the lives of others, is one that is frequently touted as beneficial because if you believe that you feel what someone else is feeling, you are more likely to have sympathy (feeling compassion, sorry or pity for hardships encountered by another) for them. And the emotional response of sympathy is the most effective driver of action.
One of the main problems with empathy, is that we are not wired towards global-concern, or global, wide-ranging empathy. It is hard to imagine the feelings of 1,000 people, while much easier to put yourself in the shoes of one particular person. Empathy is skewed by culture, personal beliefs and experiences. Independent of facts, we are generally able to feel more empathy towards people that we look like, share cultural values with or who are going through moments similar to events we have experienced.
Because of this, empathy works as a particularly effective advertising model, it is wonderful for heart-string-tugging advertisements, fundraisers or policy promotions. Like anything that works best in micro moments however, empathy acts as a spotlight. Spotlights have a time and a place, but in the context of solving large scale problems, building stronger understanding of the global village or improving equality of opportunity for everyone, including people that don’t look or sound like us, it is left wanting.
An over-focus on individual empathy, over a wider context of understanding, learning and genuine connection poorly affects outcomes for problems that affect large numbers of people, require lots of intervention points, take a long time to achieve and are difficult to compute all at once.
Well meaning, empathetic acts can, without a doubt, enhance the long-term suffering of people in need for a variety of reasons. Through promotion of inefficient, incomplete, short-term modes of assistance. Through promotion of highly emotive, visible and easy to understand kinds of disadvantage. Through a sense of ‘having done something’ through a single interaction, rather than a sense of ‘seeing what needs to be done’ that can be cultivated through an attitude of understanding and learning.
Empathy can be exceptionally useful as a parent or a friend, to help identify the perhaps unspoken needs of those close to you, but as a vehicle to wider-reaching impact, it lacks the breadth to be up to the task.
We should instead, focus on teaching understanding, opening eyes to broader contexts of life, difficulty and disadvantage. Improving exposure to the lives and ambitions of people from different cultures, countries and communities.
We need a commitment to creating an eco-system focused on solving problems on a larger scale, for everyone, and ensuring that eco-system is able to function across a broad range of outcomes. The Just Be Nice Project is committed to building that eco-system, to establishing an integrated, long-term, comprehensive suite of programs that is dynamic and flexible to meet the needs of individuals and communities experiencing disadvantage.
Regardless of whether the spotlight is on them or not, people need help. We intend to build the infrastructure that will deliver it, while teaching those involved and our partner organisations how to better understand, expand their worldview and participate in exponentially effective impact.
If you’d like to be a part of that process, we’d love to have you. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch here.
Just Be Nice
A collection of articles relevant to pursuing the effective execution of altruism in the search for equality of opportunity.