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BLOG:The Power and Perils of Empathy

The Power and Perils of Empathy

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at Creative Mornings in Denver on the topic of empathy. It’s a topic that I’ve written about in a book, talked about at conferences, and advocated the need for in the design process to countless client stakeholders over the years. Empathy is a popular topic, too. President Obama has advocated nurturing and extending our empathy as a means to end social injustice, and there is no shortage of articles extolling the benefits of empathy, as if it were a panacea to all our societal shortcomings. But when does empathy backfire? Is there ever a reason for us to ignore or try to turn off our empathy? As it turns out, sometimes, it does lead to unwanted results – and yes, there is a case to be made for blocking empathy.

For designers, developing empathy with the people that we are designing for can give us a huge leg up on design. As we create new digital experiences or redesign existing ones, our customer’s emotional state can guide our decisions about form, pacing, informational hierarchy, and much more. There are a number of tools that we use to foster and maintain empathy, most of them involving one-on-one communication.

As consultants, we are sensitive to our clients’ emotional needs as well. An empathic bond with our product stakeholders helps us navigate their organizational culture. The more able we are to intuit when to challenge norms, or how to identify and respond to fear, will often determine how successful we are in leading a project through the perilous influences of corporate mediocrity.

Healthy mammals will naturally experience empathy. It’s not something that has to be taught. Recent research has found that empathic experience transcends humans and even primates. Lab rats have been shown to experience some form of empathy. Scientists have identified mirror neurons that fire signals in our brain that recreate the sensation we are seeing others experience. When a character in a movie takes a shot to the groin and everyone winces, that’s empathy in action. Most of us can’t help but experience a degree of empathy.

The empathy that we use in our creative work, however, should be different than the empathy that often triggers unproductive behavior and emotion. Psychologists have identified two primary types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another’s emotional state without being affected by it. Emotional (or affective) empathy functions as if the emotions or experience of the individual we are connecting with are contagious.

Emotional empathy is powerful and helps us become deeply in tune with another’s state of being. But it can also lead to a number of problems. For instance, we may experience empathy with the wrong person. Judges are more lenient on white-collar criminals that share their social background. They feel greater emotional empathy with them.

Sometimes when we meet someone panhandling on the street and connect with them, we might hand them a few dollars. But this may not be where our charitable dollars are best spent. As we consume stories of individual tragedies or natural disasters, many of us connect with the story. An outpouring of emotional empathy triggers our desire to help financially or sometimes in more physical ways.

I knew several people who made their way to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. I personally sent money to the Red Cross in the aftermath of that event. This was all very helpful and necessary, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to be otherwise. However, according to a recent statistic, each day, more than ten times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of preventable diseases. More than thirteen times as many perish from malnutrition. Was our choice to help the victims of Katrina the right choice? Or did we just see, empathize with, and feel their suffering because it was all over the news? In sociology, this is called the “identifiable victim effect.” We will rush to the aid of a person we can identify. Then we get to feel good about ourselves. However, we simultaneously shrug off the suffering of faceless and nameless masses.

Emotional empathy may not always be helpful. Most parents have had the experience of their toddlers taking a tumble. They understand the need to suppress their own expression of surprise or hurt to avoid an unnecessary meltdown on the part of their kids. We want our healthcare providers to be cognitively empathetic – to listen to us and take the time to fully understand our situation. But we don’t want to see a doctor mirroring our own anxiety. In an article published by The New York Times called “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” Jeneen Interlandi interviews Emile Bruneau at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at M.I.T. about his effort to stem Palestinian and Israeli violence by promoting empathy toward one another. Unfortunately, however, empathy has been shown to be ineffective once the individuals return to the context of their own groups.

Emotional empathy can also be destructive to the individual. It can cause a great deal of stress and lead to emotional burnout. Unhealthy relationships and codependency are often sustained with emotional empathy. Victims of physical and emotional violence in relationships often identify closely with the emotional state of the responsible party, even to the point of blaming themselves for their own victimization.

What does all this mean for designers? Designers should remain aware of these differing types of empathy when working with clients and conducting user research. I’ve seen several clients and even inexperienced designers identify with a specific individual during a day of contextual inquiry, fixating on that individual’s needs while ignoring a stronger pattern clearly evidenced within the larger group. While cognitive empathy promotes a contemplative approach to problem solving, emotional empathy may sometimes lead to knee-jerk reactions. In other words, be aware of who you are personally identifying with, as the pain they experience may drown out the experience of others or even the findings from larger sets of data. Having more than one researcher present can mitigate this, to a degree.

Empathy can be a used as a powerful skill, or it can become an unfortunate crutch. This is as true for the practice of design as it is in the non-design examples above. Honing your empathy skill enables designers to create wonderful products and experiences. Avoiding the misleading cues and potential pitfalls that emotional empathy sometimes creates is another aspect of this surprisingly complex tool for design.