Thursday, March 27, 2014

Empathy - What is it and where does it come from?

If empathy is such an important part of the Design Thinking process, it's probably a good idea to define what it is and find out where it comes from.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, defines empathy as the ability to recognize and respond to someone else's feelings.  Roman Krznaric says empathy is the ability to step into another person's shoes, understand their feelings and use that to guide your actions.  So, it appears there are two parts to empathy, one which has to do with perception and the other with acting on those perceptions.

In September 2012, an international team of researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York published a study in the journal Brain, identifying the anterior insular cortex as the main activity center for empathy in humans.  Other neuro-imaging studies suggest that the AIC also plays a major role in the emotional processing of love, compassion, fairness and cooperation

Current studies indicate that we are born with it.  Israeli researchers conducted tests where a mother pretended to be injured, while simultaneously avoiding eye contact with her baby, so as to not bias the child’s responses. The researchers observed the infants and noted that the whole group (37) showed signs of genuine empathy for their mothers injury, in both emotional and cognitive ways. Younger babies’ displayed concern with their facial expressions.  Many cooed or made other sympathetic sounds. As the babies tried to figure out what had happened, their glances bounced from their mother's hurt body part up to her face and back to the injury.  Some made questioning sounds, or looked to the face of another adult for interpretation. Older more mobile and physically coordinated babies made attempts to comfort and help, softly patting their mothers and making soothing sounds.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC recently coined the phrase Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) to describe the condition where you're unable to step outside yourself and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think and believe differently from yourself.  (No, EDD isn't in the DSM yet.)

Another significant finding is that empathy can be dampened as a result of experience. Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor published online in Personality and Social Psychology Review, that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. During the same period students’ self-reported narcissism reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. Other studies point to early life experiences and trauma as a major dampener of empathy.

So, as Design Thinkers, it appears we may have our work cut out for us if we are expected to have empathy in the toolbox. Fortunately there are ways to enhance it. We'll get to those next.

By the way, have you taken that empathy test yet?

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