Are We Ready for the New Culture of Empathy?

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This year’s Coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis may challenge the way people (especially business people) think about compassion and human value.

After weeks of accelerating impact, the Corona virus has people thinking more carefully about other people. How peculiar it feels, at first, to be told that everyone must be super-careful because strangers might otherwise get sick. And then how quickly empathy becomes second nature. “Be safe” replaces “Take it easy” at the end of emails. Politicians who treated empathy as a weakness now talk about watching out for others. We agree to a shutdown that puts our own livelihoods in danger, perhaps severe danger, and we realize that this sacrifice is the price of awareness, for there are people more vulnerable to disease, and we need to watch out for them. And we wonder: If things get really bad, if the economy goes south and the hospitals shut down, who will be left to watch out for us?

In this moment of public empathy, this interregnum before normal economic and social life rebound (if they ever do), an unfamiliar question is quietly coming to the surface.

How much are people in industrial societies really supposed to care about each other?

So far, the answer seems to be: We’re supposed to care quite a bit. Our collective shutdown of daily life is the right thing to do. But it goes against much of our prevailing culture, especially commercial and consumer culture. If we’re entering a new culture of empathy, it’s not clear how long it will last. If we want to keep it, and prevent a backlash, we’d better get an idea of what empathy really entails. It’s more complex and challenging than we may be prepared for.

Empathy is a Choice

Researchers have concluded that empathy is not a quality you possess. It is a skill. Like a muscle, it grows stronger and more adept the more you exercise it.

But like Carol Dweck’s “fixed mindset,” that view of human nature turns out to be incomplete. There’s a growing group of psychological researchers who study empathy, and who have concluded that it is not a quality you possess. It is a skill. Like a muscle, it grows stronger and more adept the more you exercise it. Even narcissists can cultivate empathy, if they so choose (and if they work at it). The rest of us can make the same choice, and our success rate in following through depends, in large part, on whether we live in an empathetic culture — that is, a culture where people routinely pay attention to each other’s thinking and feeling. Right now, we are all encouraging each other to cultivate empathy, and it seems to be working, at least so far.

My understanding of all this comes in large part from a conversation with Stanford University professor Jamil Zaki in early February. He is the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, (the kind of workplace where website staff photos also include pictures of their children and pets) and a leading researcher in this field. Last year he published an insightful book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, which describes the state of current psychology and neuroscience research into empathy and its development. He’s about 40 years old, bespectacled, clean cut, cheerful and thoughtful in demeanor, and prone to turning his own personal experience into the grist of broader experimentation. As the son of a Pakistani father and a Peruvian mother who met as students in the U.S. and settled in Boston in the 1980s, his interest in psychology began with his efforts, as a teenager, to make sense of his own response to their bitter divorce. (He tells this story in his book.) He maintained affection for both his parents, though they could barely talk to each other, and that led to his lifelong research into the inner resources that people draw on as they cope with difficult circumstances.

At the time of the interview in his office on campus near Palo Alto, I don’t think either of us realized the extent to which the COVID-19 virus would change behavior, attitudes, and the economy. I didn’t realize, for example, that this trip from New York would probably be my last air travel for months. In 2019 I had finally worked my way up to Diamond-level frequent flyer status on Delta, a coveted category that signaled my arrival as a champion road warrior. Now, in 2020, although I’m glad of my newly reduced carbon footprint, I can’t help feeling some deflation as my frequent flyer status collapses down to Lead or maybe Bromine.

“Anybody who argues for the clear dominance of either selfishness or compassion is mistaken,” Zaki said. “Both qualities are so strong that their relative influence over us depends on the situation. Neither is more fundamental than the other. And that, to me, turns the volume way up on the choices we make and the importance of our beliefs.”

Then he reminded me of the old Cherokee parable of the two wolves howling within you — one promoting compassion, the other promoting self-interest. “Which one is going to win? The one you feed more. When we pay attention to the belief in human empathy as a guiding force, we give it momentum.”

Mentalizing, Experience Sharing, and Empathic Concern

The first component of empathy is mentalizing: thinking about what other people are thinking and what they’re likely to do next. If you play poker, for instance, you are probably mentalizing about the other players; developing a “theory of mind” about what the stolid expressions on their faces don’t show you. Much of the research on this skill comes from work with autistic people, who tend to have difficulty mentalizing. So, apparently, do many people in positions of authority; the more status you have, the less inclined you may be to do the difficult mental work of thinking about others’ thoughts. (Most administrative assistants mentalize about their bosses, but it’s the rare boss who mentalizes about an administrative assistant.)

(In our book The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership, my coauthors Jeffrey Schwartz, Josie Thomson and I call this the “mentalizer’s paradox.” Thinking about other peoples’ thinking is critical for the kind of leadership that addresses complex problems like pandemics. But the higher you rise in a hierarchy, the less likely you are to mentalize, and your ability to lead starts to atrophy.)

Although mentalizing is associated with empathy, it has little to do with altruism or compassion. Bullies, for example, can be highly skilled mentalizers who know just how to humiliate people and get under their skin. If you hoard supplies because you think other hoarders will get there first, that also involves mentalizing: thinking about what your competitors will do.

The second component of empathy is experience sharing: “feeling your pain.” This is, as Zaki writes, “empathy’s leading edge.” It’s the gateway sensation for altruistic sentiment, ancient in evolutionary terms, apparently present in monkeys, mice and geese. It’s also associated with brain mirroring and “emotional contagion.” But while the sharing of experience is emotionally powerful, it does not involve commitment or competence. In itself, it doesn’t lead people to act on their feelings.

To make the sacrifices that true kindness may call for, you need the third component: empathic concern. “Within the research literature,” Zaki told me, “this is the element of empathy that most commonly produces prosocial action. It’s a motivation to improve someone else’s well-being.”

With empathic concern, there’s always the question of who deserves that level of attention. Our family members? Our friends and loved ones? The citizens of our country? The members of our profession? Those who share a similar background? Or everyone? The question “who deserves our concern?” is so emotionally charged that, when it takes the form of political disagreements, it can be almost impossible to resolve them.

But at cohesive times like this, when we feel that anyone who might get ill should deserve our concern, the dynamic is changed. We are exhorted to social distancing by many, many messages: like this one from New York Magazine writer Sarah Jones, who has a hereditary form of anemia that puts her at elevated risk:

Nobody seems to know exactly what the virus would do to me, except that I’d probably get sicker than the average 32-year-old woman. I would obviously prefer to avoid this….

The choices of others force me to restrict myself more than my condition strictly dictates… Everyone needs sunlight, but for me it’s more than a source of vitamin D. I get jaundice, and sunlight helps keep me from looking like a banana peel…. With the bars and restaurants closed and a ban on large gatherings in place, the city is safer for me and for my sick and elderly neighbors, too.

We read that and think, That’s right. I need to change my behavior. I need to watch out for everyone — in the city, and potentially everywhere. We hear about 95-year-olds trapped in nursing homes, or chronically ill people losing confidence, or Millennials with liver disease, or health care workers pushed to the brink, and we recognize that our carelessness or self-indulgence could unwittingly lead us to cause suffering for hundreds of people around us. And that would ultimately be hellish for us as well. We are all in this together.

When enough people think that way, as now, it makes it hard to think otherwise. Thus, for now at least, we live in a culture of empathy. And that in itself is a remarkable development. It flies in the face of prevailing cultural trends.

According to The War for Kindness, the general level of empathy around the world (as measured in personality tests) has steadily declined since the 1970s. This is partly caused by the increase in population diversity (psych research has repeatedly found that people have a hard time empathizing, especially experience-sharing, with others from different backgrounds), and partly by the social nature of emotional response. If you work in a company or live in a community where people are treating each other more harshly, you’re more likely to do the same.

The opposite is also true. If you live in an empathetic culture, you’re more likely to practice empathy yourself. That’s clearly part of the current dynamic. But it’s not certain how long it will last. It’s reasonable to think that, if the period of social distancing, sacrifice and inconvenience goes on too long, and people are forced to comply, there could be a very ugly backlash.

We would obviously prefer to avoid that, too.

Consumers Don’t Sacrifice

Second, it’s especially wrenching for those who feel unfairly singled out. In this crisis, for instance, if you have to give up your livelihood and freedom of movement, you want to know that others are making similar sacrifices. You at least want to be sure that you aren’t being taken advantage of; that you aren’t sacrificing while others party on. (Hence all the recriminations about the Spring Breakers on the beach.)

You also want to know that the sacrifice is worthwhile: that it’s going to lead to good results. This desire for justification may be a relatively recent phenomenon. In Genesis, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham went along without questioning it. (God famously relented.) But now, if we’re asked to sacrifice our precious time or livelihood, we want to be sure that it’s going to work.

And, of course, we never can be sure. In that sense, the COVID-19 sacrifices are like the many sacrifices parents make for their children, or adults for their aging parents, or soldiers for their country. There are no guarantees that it will “work.” It isn’t even clear what “work” means in this context. The sacrifice is justified because you have to do it, and because the alternative is even more frightening. And later, you may come to believe your sacrifice helped you build character (though it’s not clear to me that this always happens, or that people always come to recognize it).

The COVID-19 sacrifices are like the many sacrifices parents make for their children, or adults for their aging parents, or soldiers for their country. There are no guarantees that it will “work.” It isn’t even clear what “work” means in this context.

Finally, our willingness to sacrifice (I believe) is undermined by commercial culture, the culture that envelops most of us consumers in industrialized countries. The very purpose of business is to make life easier: to remove the need for sacrifice, to make tradeoffs unnecessary. Product and experience design are all based on reducing friction: eliminating inconvenience, and replacing tough choices with “win-win” solutions. Friction is the sacrifice of time, energy and sanity. Business has been oriented this way since at least the harnessing of electricity. And so has the culture of the middle class. Underlying the familiar question, “Are you better off than your parents were?” is another question: “Do you have to make as many sacrifices as your parents made?” And if the answer is no, that you’re sacrificing less, then you can feel you’re making progress in your life.

Jamil Zaki and I talked a bit about the propensity of business to emphasize all aspects of empathy — except empathic concern. “This is part of the moral crisis of Silicon Valley,” he said. “[Technological leaders] have done an absolutely incredible job predicting what will drive people’s behavior, and figuring out what they want. They know that people want attention, confirmation that they are seen by others, and a sense of connection. But many companies have leveraged those deep human desires and packaged them in ways that make people feel more disconnected than ever. They provide empty calories of gamified connection that make people feel as though they’re more involved with others than they actually are.”

The commercial culture also treats high-performance people as assets, and everyone else as liabilities. This doesn’t seem to prepare us well for a time of pandemic. When you’re chronically ill, writes Sarah Jones, “you learn that you are an expense to insure and to treat. Your needs drain the resources of the public: You are taking more out than you are putting in. The message might not be audible to those who don’t have to listen for it, but it’s there. It would be easier, this subtext whispers, if the sick and the elderly did not exist.”

Where It Goes from Here

Another warning sign is the desperate, anxious hope that technological breakthroughs will save the day. As the New York Times reported on March 17, medical researchers around the world are collaborating with unprecedented speed, cooperation and intensity. They are mapping proteins and looking for interventions — tests, remedies, ultimately vaccines — that will save lives and prevent a collapse of the medical system.

When I first read this article, my reaction was not altruistic. I thought, “At last, here’s the fix we’ve been waiting for that will prevent an economic meltdown.” In other words, I immediately reverted to the commercial culture mindset, hoping for any solution that would address my own looming forced sacrifice. (For I just parted ways with my previous employer, and am starting a business doing editorial consultation — just at the dawn of an unexpected new recession.)

If the full-court-press global research effort fails to find a medical remedy, that in itself might undermine our empathetic culture. It’s a short step from “Well, the scientists tried hard. But there is no treatment. We’ve got another eight months of lockdown” to “All those scientists are corrupt, and the game is fixed.”

If chloroquine or cancer treatments turn out to be a silver bullet, that would be amazing. But we sacrifice-averse consumers may then come to expect the same kind of rapid-fire innovative response to every great problem, including natural disasters, environmental damage, and ever-more-virulent future pandemics.

On the other hand, if a remedy is found, if chloroquine or cancer treatments turn out to be a silver bullet, that would be amazing. But we sacrifice-averse consumers may then come to expect the same kind of rapid-fire innovative response to every great problem, including natural disasters, environmental damage, and ever-more-virulent future pandemics. In other words, we may evolve even further into a society which takes its sacrifice-prevention for granted, especially for those who are favored.

The question thus remains: Can we (humanity) throw out the bathwater of friction and danger, without losing the baby of character and responsibility? Can we bring more of the threats to humanity under control, and still keep our resilience and empathy for when we need to make sacrifices in the future? Or will the burden of sacrifice fall on those few who recognize it, while the rest of us are culturally asleep?

We won’t fully know the answer for another few months. Since empathy is a choice, we aggregated citizens will likely gravitate to some prevailing form of it. Will it be mentalizing — thinking about what others are thinking? Experience sharing — feeling what others feel? Or empathetic concern — making a commitment to others, even if it means sacrificing something important to us? And if we make that commitment, will it be only to people we know personally? People in our companies? Our localities? Our country? Or all the world?

I don’t think there’s an obviously correct answer to that question. If the answer is, “Commitment and the world,” there are natural follow-up questions. Who bears the costs?

And if the answer is, “Only commitment for the people we care about,” then there are questions about who defines the boundaries of the in-group.

Most societies have been having a version of that conversation, but the pandemic brings a new kind of clarity to it. And the stakes have never been higher. Choosing to be universal but failing is no better than choosing to be highly exclusive and succeeding.

Empathy is Good for Us. So What?

But most people don’t realize this, or don’t believe it. Referring to studies by his Stanford colleague Dale Miller, Zaki said, “People believe that other people are more self-interested than they really are. As a result, people feel as though they should conform to that norm of self-interest, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” After all, empathetic people are supposed to be vulnerable. There’s always that narcissist out there ready to gaslight them.

“People believe that other people are more self-interested than they really are. As a result, self-interest becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

If we really want to promote empathy, therefore, we have to consciously set up norms where it’s easy and rewarding to practice it, and to see others practice it as well. One example, which Zaki mentioned, is the peer-to-peer bonus: a fund that some companies set up to allow employees to reward each other for jobs well done. I have experienced these myself, and they certainly worked for me: they allowed me to think about what other people were thinking, why they had done some of the great things they did, and how I could help them feel appreciated for it.

“These simple acts, repeated over and over again,” said Zaki, “can call attention to the real kindness around us. People are massively conformist. We look to each other to figure out what is valued.” A great leader, he concluded, is someone who establishes many opportunities for empathetic practice, to show how looking out for each other can make things better, on a day-to-day basis.

Sarah Jones ended her New York article by saying that:

America has hit an inflection point. It will emerge from this calamity a more generous nation, or it will become more atomized and more callous than it had been before.

The same is true of the rest of the world. Empathy cannot be taken for granted, in any of its forms. It’s not a quality people have. It’s a talent people develop. Whatever happens to the virus and its aftermath, events so far have shown that people have more empathy than expected. Hopefully it will be enough to get us through the next few months.

Thoughtful business writer & editor. Wise Advocate, Age of Heretics, Who Really Matters, 5th Discipline Fieldbook, strategy+business, Whole Earth Catalog.

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