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.