Monday, June 27, 2011

The Empathy Heuristic

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. - Marcel Proust

Most people see empathy as being primarily concerned with the moral sphere. We should try to consider other people’s feelings before we act, so we’re not inadvertently assholes to them. We should imagine how other people might react to what we say before we say it, so that we don’t offend anyone. It’s framed as a benefit to others - it’s not that you’re doing it for yourself, it’s that you’re making someone else’s life easier.

But, as some people much smarter than me have recently taught me, empathy is an extremely powerful tool to help you make decisions. And I think part of the reason I never picked up on this myself is that I already thought I was very empathetic, when really I was only sympathetic.

It’s still somewhat of an uncommon (or perhaps just under-used) skill, but sympathy isn’t really that difficult. It’s easy enough to commiserate with someone who is feeling what you are feeling, or to lend an understanding ear to someone who is going through what you’ve gone through. What’s more difficult is to connect with people whose point of view you don’t understand - to see the world through their eyes, not because they’re so similar to your own but precisely because they’re so dissimilar. Connecting with someone because you understand them is sympathy, but understanding them because you can connect with them - that is empathy.

And it obviously has its benefits when it comes to relating to other people, to developing emotional bonds, and all that stuff. I don’t want to disparage that side of things, because empathy is very valuable in that regard as well. But once you start trying to understand people’s motives through an empathetic lens, you begin to see just how many other applications there are for it.

The door I entered through was the Fundamental Attribution Error, which in its most basic form is this: people usually attribute their own actions, especially faults, to their circumstances; but they will attribute the actions of others to their fundamental personality. That is, if you are rude to your waitress, it’s understandable, because you’ve had a bad day - but if a customer is rude to you, it’s because they’re generally just a rude person.

The reasons for this are manifold and too complicated for me to properly understand, but I suspect it’s partially an extension of what you do and don’t notice - you know a hell of a lot about yourself, you know intimately what kind of a day you’ve had, and possibly how rare such rudeness is for you, so that information is easily recalled when making value judgements; but when it comes to a stranger, that one act of rudeness is literally all you have to go on, so it makes it harder to imagine extenuating circumstances.

Knowing this sort of thing about people is useful in both directions. Firstly, when you consciously stop to think what the reasons might be behind someone’s rudeness, you begin to realise that it doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to harp on rude customers because this applies to other areas of life, but to keep with the example - part of the reason we don’t like rudeness is because it upsets us to think that they might have a point. On one level we might think “What a jerk” but on another, deeper level, we take the things people say to us to heart; as though we somehow brought it upon ourselves. Realising that the person has probably just had a shitty day is the first step towards not caring what random strangers think of you. It sounds kind of Zen, but it’s really more Stoic.

The other direction, of course, is to consider when we might be letting ourselves off too easily. The fact that we have had a bad day is not really a good enough reason to be an asshole to the people around us - what we tend to consider to be extenuating circumstances are much more often just excuses. When you realise that pretty much everybody considers themselves to be a fundamentally good, rational person - and you contrast this with the irrational bastardry you see in the world - it becomes apparent that a lot of people are fooling themselves, and none of us are immune. It takes a powerful mind to look critically at what society feeds us, what other people say to us - but it takes a much more powerful one to look critically at itself.

The beautiful thing is, though, that this has applications in all areas of life. And I have historically been terrible at reading people - as anyone who knows me well will attest - so I’m sure there’s a lot of applications I haven’t gotten to yet. True empathy helps you deal with menial tasks and annoying customers. It helps you deal with stupid bosses, with annoying co-workers. It can keep you out of the drunk tank when you realise that the cops don’t want to give you a hard time, they just don’t want you to cause any trouble. It can help you understand why people oppose political policies you support - and to understand how you can better present your case to them. It helps you understand that the ‘unattainable’ girl you like probably feels as insecure as you do at times.

Empathy doesn’t just make life easier for the people around you. Empathy makes you smarter.

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