Empathy: how empathic are we – you and me – really?

The other week, I wrote about empathy.  I was eager to define it, because I realised that we have many misconceptions about what it means to be empathic. Last week, I suggested empathic dialogue is a critical component of post-riots recovery process – and I want to come back to that in the future. Meanwhile, I’ve been playing around with what the riots tell us about our current empathy status and what our understanding of empathy tell us about the riots.  I’m left thinking the following: It’s one thing to talk about the need for greater empathy – but is another to take active steps to that end. How do we become more empathic? And what are we doing in our culture(s) that is reducing our empathic capacity? What do we need to stop doing and what do we need to start doing to increase our individual and collective empathy levels?  I think one of the first steps we need to take is greater individual reflection: let us assess our empathy levels and how they influence the day to day choices we make, the politics we support, and the extent to which we actively seek to ensure the well-being of others.

In June 2011, Simon Baron-Cohen gave an RSA talk: Zero Degrees of Empathy, where he talks about what he means by empathic erosion. His research shows that our human capacity to be empathic operates on a bell curve. That is, a minority of people have little or no capacity for empathy, the vast majority have balanced levels of empathy and a minority are highly empathic.  He defines empathy as having two components:

·      (Intellectual) Cognitive: the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings.

·      (Emotional reaction) Affective: The drive to respond appropriately to another person’s thoughts and feelings.

For Baron-Cohen both components are critical. He gives the example of how a psychopath might be able to understand that what s/he is doing is harmful to another person, but then will not act accordingly – will not stop what s/he is doing. In contrast, Baron-Cohen explains how people with autism might have low cognitive empathy levels, as they are unable to read the social cues to understand people’s emotions. Yet, they also will not cause other people harm. Low empathy levels alone do not result in a person doing harm, but they do seem to be an integral component of anti-social behavior.

With Baron-Cohen in the back of my mind, I started thinking about all the people involved in the riots.  Nick Smith’s account in OpenDemocracy and other accounts illustrate the spectrum of participants: those who broke windows and lit fires, those who did no violence but then entered the buildings to steal; those who saw goods on the street and picked them up; those who were on the scene only watching but not actively participating; those who were indoors and watched on the telly, those who ignored it all, those who tried to stop the rooters from destroying the property of others, those who sought to protect their own property by standing up peacefully, those who seemed ready – if provoked – to retaliate against the looters with violence.

Where do these different types of people fit onto the empathy bell curve? I’m guessing that the people who committed the most serious violence will be low/no empathy end of the spectrum. Some of these people might have a serious psychiatric disorder and need help to function constructively in society. But I’m also guessing that not all of those who committed acts of violence fall into this category. Instead, they are people born with an average capacity to be empathic. Either in that moment – caught up in the contagion –they became disconnected from their empathic capacity or more generally (as a consequence of life experience combined with genetic pre-disposition) they have lost the connection and choose to engage in violence/destructive behaviour.  

I’ve been in meetings where people – including myself – ask how can we grow more empathy in society. But the converse question is important, too: what leads people to disconnect from empathy? And with this question goes a fundamental assumption –which I think the Baron-Cohen research supports – the vast majority of us innately have pro-social empathy levels. Yet, it seems something in our cultures(s) is diminishing those levels – and diminishing our capacity to be pro-social, or perhaps pro-social beyond certain familiar perimeters, e.g., people who belong to our tribe (however that is defined- socially, economically, religious etc). On this point, of empathy perimeters, see also The Empathic Civilisation (RSA Animate).

I think many people tend to associate anti-social behaviour with low-income communities and certainly that was the initial knee-jerk reaction to the riots. This view seems lopsided to me. Last week I was wondering what links a high street shop looter to a cavalier, high risk-taking white collar profiteer.  I’m starting to think what they share is a disconnect from empathy – from a desire to ask repeatedly: “Why am I making the choices I am making? What are the impacts of my choices on others?” and to make choices based on not only their own welfare, but also based on the welfare of others. A looter and a profiteer are both anti-social, no?

For me, this is a really important dimension to how we move forward post-riots. The aspect of empathy post-riots analysis tends to spotlight is a desire (when people can get beyond the ‘they are all criminals’ mentality) to understand why the rioters made the choices they did. This is an important line of inquiry. However, we need to balance this with reflections upon our own choices. Specifically, we can reflect upon the extent to which our choices and behaviors reflect pro-social empathy levels beyond our narrow ‘tribal’ perimeters. We all participated in the riots in one way or another – actively or passively. Equally, we will all participate in what follows – actively or passively. I suspect our levels of empathy play a significant role in determining how active or passive we choose to be, and the nature (constructive/destructive) of our contributions.

Of course, empathy is not going to provide us with answers – just because someone has reasonable levels of empathy, does not guarantee they are able to create effective solutions. In fact, RSA Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor (in response to the Baron-Cohen lecture) raised the point that in some situations too much empathy can destructively lead to indecisiveness. Yet, I think reasonable levels of empathy are a pre-requisite to robust deliberative decision-making. Empathy forces us to want to pause periodically and ask ourselves questions that begin with ‘What if…’ and ‘Why…’ – to be reflective rather than reflexive.

And at this point, I’m inclined to go back to the previous point: we can easily slip into a wearing a lens that keeps asking ‘why, why, why’ of the looters – which is a necessary line of inquiry – but we also need to ask ‘why, why, why’ and ‘what if, what if, what if’ of our selves – politicians, media professionals, civil servants, residents of communities where there were riots, residents of communities where there were no riots.  I do see this happening – with blog posts on consumerism and greed-based culture. And I hope this goes further. No matter what our social and economic background or political and religious affiliation we each have an opportunity and – I would argue – a responsibility to ask: How did I participate in the riots? How have I contributed/do I contribute to the culture that fed the riots? What can I do differently?  


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