Thursday, August 6, 2015

Friday, June 26, 2015

Are People Actually Bad at Empathy?

The New York Times published an article by a psychologist named Paul Bloom, titled "Imagining the Lives of Others." In it, he reports on a new book by psychologist Nicholas Epley called "Mindwise", which says that humans are actually much worse at empathy than we think we are. Like several of the commenters on the column, I am skeptical that the studies cited really prove that. Those studies "included asking speed daters to identify others who wanted to date them, asking job candidates how impressed their interviewers were with them and asking a range of people whether or not someone was lying to them." The fact that the subjects were pretty bad at doing these tasks doesn't tell me that people can't be empathetic.

But, his main point, that it is much harder than we realize to truly understand the lives, experiences, and feelings of others, is true. As he says, if you haven't been to war, you can't really know what it's like--as any returning soldier will tell you. If you haven't had a child die, you cannot know what it's like for those bereaved parents. If you haven't been out of work and searching for a job for a year, you can't really know what an unemployed person is going through.This is why support groups are so popular and useful. People need to be with others who have had the same experience, as they will tell you.

And indeed, this is necessary for human survival. We are exposed to a lot of difficult and horrible things in the news every day, ranging from those that affect a large number of people, such as natural disasters, to those that affect only a few, such as the story on our local news station the other night about two teenage brothers who were killed in a car crash. I saw the devastated family, the sobbing teammates of the boys, and I could understand to some extent how unalterably horrible this unexpected life-changing event was. But I could turn off the news and go back to making dinner--which I did, because it was too hard to watch that. If we did experience complete empathy for every person we meet, every person we know, and every person we see or read about in the news, it would be overwhelming. It would be incapacitating.

So, perhaps the amount of empathy most of us are able to feel for others is generally OK. We are a highly social species, and empathy helps to maintain those social ties. Humans are far more empathetic than any other species. (Which is not to say that other species, notably dolphins, elephants, and primates, don't experience empathy. Apparently they do.) We need to try to understand one another, as best we can. We need to read novels and non-fiction, see movies and plays, as a way to learn about others' lives and experiences. We need to talk to other people, pay attention to others' lives.

And as Paul Bloom says in this article, "These failures [to be as empathetic as we think we are] should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Roll a Mile in Someone Else's Shoes

An article in the Star Tribune by a student named Kate Ross is a reminder that the best way to experience empathy for another person is to actually experience what that person is experiencing. While there are many important and useful ways to increase our empathy--talking to other people, reading about other people, watching films about other people, listening to Ted Talks about other people, meeting and getting to know other people--nothing compares to having the same experience. Many doctors say that they thought they had empathy for what their patients were going through, until they had a serious illness themselves and became a patient. Then their understanding changed and deepened. It became real.

In this case, Kate tells about how she injured both of her legs in an accident and had to use a wheelchair for two months. She says that, like many of us, while she had been sympathetic to people with disabilities, she realized after the accident how far that was from empathy. Then, she experienced for herself how much of a struggle it is for people in wheelchairs to have access to places most of us take for granted. Particularly, she found it difficult to access bathrooms in public places, and to maneuver her wheelchair through crowded restaurants. How many times have any of us sat in a restaurant where the tables are crowded together, and it's hard enough for those of us who can walk to work our way through the narrow spaces between people sitting at close tables? Although Kate has the use of her legs back, she will assuredly never again use a public bathroom, or move through a crowded public place, or step up easily onto a curb after crossing a street, without thinking about her fellow citizens who happen to be disabled.

And so, she was moved enough by this experience to write an opinion article for a major newspaper, urging us all to truly understand why it is so important for the Americans with Disabilities Act to be enforced.

Of course, it is impossible for anyone to truly experience the life of every other person. But Kate's story reminds us to be humble--to be careful when we say, "I understand." We kind of do, but it is important to remember that we also really don't.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The One-Fourth, Three-Fourths Empathy Symbol

I'm glad people like the empathy symbol. But to be perfectly honest, perhaps sometimes it should be drawn with the line dividing the two sides, not down the middle, but over to the side. Maybe 1/4, 3/4. Because quite often, while we say that two sides should "reach out and open up to understand each other's feelings and experiences", it is true that one of those sides--the majority side--is more well-known to the other than vice versa. Black people already pretty much know what the white experience is, because it's what they see in the media all the time. Disabled people can see what life is like for able-bodied people, because it's all around them. Gay people know what it's like to be straight, because that's all they see in romantic comedies. Jews know what it's like to experience everyday life as a Christian--it surrounds them every December for an entire month.

And so, truthfully, it is often mostly incumbent on those in the majority to try to understand the experiences and feelings of those in the minority.

It's been very interesting, following the Ferguson, MO shooting (and previously, the Trayvon Martin shooting) to see the media cover what it is actually like to be black in America in the 2000's. The "post-racial" society. Only, clearly, not so much. It's important to hear this from a general viewpoint, and  from a personal viewpoint.

In the Star Tribune of Sept. 5th, Sara Adams writes from the very personal vantage point of a mother of two sons--one white, one black. How heart-wrenching for her to see her black son stopped at the end of their driveway by the police, and forced to put his key in the door to prove he lived there. How awful to fear for her black son, as she does not have to for her white son, that as he has gotten to be a young man, he will be stopped and harassed, possibly seriously, possible lethally. For good reason. She's already experienced having her black 17-year-old son detained by the police for curfew violation, while they let his white friends go home. She says, "My white son has never been exposed to this kind of treatment. When he gets in trouble, he is gently reprimanded, reminded that he's a role model, and told to go home and think about it." She called her experience raising a black son and a white son "eye-opening." You should read her story. It will open your eyes.

Jon Stewart described, on a recent Daily Show, how a producer and a correspondent for his show went into a New York City building, the white producer dressed like a "homeless elf", as he humorously put it, and the black correspondent dressed "resplendently" in a tailored suit. As he said, "Guess who was stopped?" He ended this powerful 9-minute segment on race in America by saying, "You're tired of hearing about it? Imagine how f**king exhausting it is living it."

That's what empathy asks us to do. Imagine life as someone else. Someone of a different culture, a different skin color, a different sexual orientation. Imagine it, and see it as a fully human experience. Just different, in some ways. And of course, similar in many other ways, since we are all human beings, after all.

The media has been very remiss in presenting life in all its variations. Apparently, there will be some new TV shows on ABC this fall about racial minorities. "Black-ish", a sitcom about an African-American family,  based on the writer's own family. And it will dare to mention things like racial profiling and Ferguson, because that is actually the reality of the African-American experience. Hopefully, white American audiences will see this not as a black sitcom for black viewers, but as a sitcom about an interesting, truthful and funny portrayal of a black family. Same goes for the comedies that ABC will be putting on this year about a Latino family, and an Asian immigrant family.

So here is my plea: people in the 3/4 group, please acknowledge: empathy and understanding are not always a 50/50 deal.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

There but for the grace of fate go I

Apparently, Scrooge is alive and well these days. He's not just a relic from Dickens' time, not just a character in a play we watch during the holidays. Witness these modern-day Scrooges, who say "Bah, humbug" in 21st Century language: Congresspeople who want to cut SNAP benefits, inexplicably wanting to save the government money by literally taking food from poor children's mouths. Congresspeople who have cut extended unemployment benefits from the latest budget agreement. Outgoing mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, whose policies favored the wealthy and made life much more difficult for the homeless and the poor. Readers of Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column, who responded to his recent writings about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates with vitriol and accusations that it was all their fault and they deserved nothing from those who have successfully made their own lives more comfortable and well-functioning.

Perhaps these people who excoriate the poor are afraid that if they feel empathy for those who live in homeless shelters and get their food from food shelves and SNAP vouchers and free meals, they are admitting that these people are like themselves. So they have to set them up as different, as someone they could never be. But in fact, as Kristof says in a recent column, "let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics. For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing." 

The New York Times had a powerful series just recently on a girl named Dasani, living with her parents and 7 siblings in one room in a particularly decrepit homeless shelter in New York. I defy you to read this series and not feel empathy for Dasani and her family. You will also feel deep admiration for her determination to succeed despite the tremendous odds stacked against her from the moment of her birth.

Which raises the question: What of those who strive as hard as they can, and yet fall behind? Before you write to your Congressperson to urge the government to cut off unemployment benefits to people who have been "living on the government dole for too long", please read about Yolanda Gray.

And then, turn off the cynicism and turn on the empathy for the down and out, whose ranks have been growing steadily in these times of increasing economic disparity.

We used to say, "There but for the grace of God go I." I don't think God had much to do with the fact that some of us live in a nice house and shop at Whole Foods, while other families live in a homeless shelter and shop with food stamps. Let's just call it fate. As Kristof says, "it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Age of Empathy?

My son Zack just shared this article with me. It's fascinating and thought-provoking, and highly recommended.

It's called, Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People, by Roman Krznaric. He is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy advisor to organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations.

Mr. Krznaric contends that science is pointing us from many directions into an understanding of how human beings are actual hardwired to be empathetic, which makes a lot of sense, given that we are a highly socially-based species. He offers 6 ways that people can increase their empathy. Some are easier than others. Certainly, it's easier to talk to the person sitting next to us on the bus than it is to go live among people in a slum. But all of the ideas are well-worth exploring, however we can.

Do check out this article, with its accompanying videos.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Chris Kluwe: Punter, Pundit and Empathy Promoter

Chris Kluwe is the former Minnesota Vikings punter who became famous when he published an enraged response on Deadspin to a Maryland state legislator's demand to the Baltimore Ravens that they silence their player who had expressed support for same-sex marriage. His well-argued open letter, full of colorful and persuasive language, propelled him into working as a public spokesman for the "Vote No" effort to defeat the anti-same-sex marriage amendment in Minnesota last fall. The amendment was defeated.

For Kluwe, it all comes down to empathy. Plain, simple, basic empathy. As he said on Conan's talk show, "Societies that don't practice empathy, if you look at the historical record, every single civilization has failed. … And really, the root cause of that is not being able to put yourself in someone's shoes. It's empathy, it's treat other people the way you'd like to be treated." 

Now Kluwe has a new book of essays titled Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies. His subject matter ranges from human rights to philosophy to professional football and more. But he keeps coming back to the basic value of empathy, which is his guiding principle in life. In fact, one of the essays, called "All Your Bases", asserts that "the core of a stable society is a tripod", one of the legs of which is empathy: "Without its people possessing a fully developed sense of empathy, a society has no freedom. It is only through accepting the differences of others that a stable polity can develop." (p.60)

One of the most striking essays in the book is called "Somebody Think of the Children". (p 116-118) He talks about a Vote No gathering that he attended, and shares some of the thoughts he took away from it. First, he says, "Gay people are exactly the same as straight people. They laughed, they yelled, they congratulated me on the Vikings winning, ...they spilled beer on the floor and apologized for doing so. They asked for autographs, ...and introduced me to their significant others."  Kluwe goes on to say, "Gay people are not treated as American citizens. The number of individuals who came up and thanked Brendon and me for talking a stand was staggering and, frankly, depressing. I use the word depressing because if so many have to thank us for showing basic empathy, thank us for recognizing that they are human beings just like everyone else, that means that many, many other people have not. means that we are failing the American dream."

Then he tells about how he was stunned when a teacher/coach came up to him and thanked him, saying "What you did will save children's lives." Kluwe says, "This really hit me, in a primal way I was not expecting. ... A child should never have to feel that way. A child should never think that suicide is the only option, the only solution to the tormenting and bullying and unthinking viciousness adults often unwittingly pass along to the young. ... Because, make no mistake, children who suffer this way are casualties. All the hopes, all the dreams, all the wonderful potential life has in store are as dust before the scouring winds of intolerance (whether it be racist, sexist, or religious.) Every time you propagate the message that a person who is gay is less than human, that same-sex marriage cannot be as filled with love and laughter and tears as heterosexual marriage, that gays don't deserve to pass a legacy on the to their families, you quicken that howling storm and sweep away a tiny bit more humantity from the world. ... Well, I for one will not stand for it. I will not stand for... people thinking that they have the right to live other people's lives for them, of the complete lack of empathy so often shown in our society. ... I stand for equality under the law, for teating others how I would want to be treated. ... I stand for my children."

Powerful stuff. I stand with Chris Kluwe.