One of the questions I wanted to answer when I wrote Mean People Suck is: What happens to empathy when we get older?
Why does it seem to disappear somewhere between childhood and adulthood so we end up living in a world where a lot of people, from managers at work to politicians in government, appear to be clueless when it comes to empathy?
The thing is, kids are naturally empathetic. Just watch a toddler relate to a friend who’s hurt – or even a Pixar movie character – and you’ll see empathy in action from a young age.
But, when you get to the adult world, poof, it’s gone. It’s more a rarity rather than an everyday thing. It’s as if people take their empathy, lock it in a box, and bury it in the sand along with their heads. Then, they only bring it out when it’s convenient, a sort of selective empathy.
Why is this?
One of the studies I looked at found that selective empathy is a very real thing. So real, in fact, that it drives our political ideologies. That’s huge.
It implies that empathy drives how people vote. It dictates the decisions people make. It even impacts political policy and the resulting society we all live in today.
- You can break down how people perceive others into two different categories – those who feel connected to ingroups and those who feel connected to outgroups.
- This connection appears to drive individuals to adopt one ideology or another.
- Empathy may be an internal experience for the individual but it has external consequences for the whole.
Ingroups, Outgroups, and Politics Today
When you look at politics, you’ll find a spectrum of ideologies but I think we can all agree there’s a defining line between two distinct political perspectives: conservative and liberal. One of the studies that really struck me when writing Mean People Suck was conducted by the University of Arkansas researchers. It looked at how people perceive groups and tried to figure out how that perception shapes their political ideology.
So, instead of saying, conservative people are one way and liberals are another, the study found that empathy and perception are at the root of leaning toward one political ideology or another.
The researchers looked at a concept known as “intergroup connectedness.” Intergroup connectedness has to do with how people view groups who are different from them, and groups who share similarities with them.
David Sparkman, currently an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the researchers in the study explains, “We thought this intergroup interconnectedness might be related to your political ideology. The idea is that the perception of groups drives people toward one ideology or another. Throughout the study, that is basically what we found.”
People who feel connected with ingroups feel empathy for those who are similar to them. These people tend to have conservative views. People who feel connected with outgroups feel empathy for those who are different. These people tend to support liberal views.
Can Empathy Heal Toxic Environments?
Maybe. I’m not sure what else has that much power. But we’re going to have to shed more light on empathy if we want to use it to achieve positive results.
When you look at what’s happening with empathy and perception, it’s not that some people care and others don’t. It’s simply two different ways to perceive the world around you.
Do you empathize with those who are similar to you, those in your ‘tribe’? Or, do you feel empathy for people who are different who may be facing adversity?
The first is a tangible empathy – it’s compassion for those to whom you can directly relate. The second is a cerebral empathy – it’s compassion for the idea of suffering.
Ultimately, what we should be doing is having empathy for both ingroups and outgroups. And that starts with understanding what empathy is, how we apply it in our own lives, and what steps we can take to become more empathetic.
If we can’t see that we’re practicing selective empathy – having empathy for someone but not for everyone – we can’t see the big picture and where our decisions lead in the long-term.
Empathy Has Consequences
One thing we can take from the results of this research is that empathy isn’t just an ideal. It’s a powerful thing that can have huge consequences, for better or worse. These consequences can play out not just in our individual lives – fostering a better workplace culture, creating a more worthwhile customer experience, enjoying deeper interpersonal relationships – they also play out on the world stage.
Just like in a workplace setting or a group of friends, with empathy, groups can overcome conflict because they can listen to each other, put themselves in the other’s shoes, and work out a resolution amongst themselves.
As we showed in Mean People Suck, being mean is not the path to greater success. It’s the opposite. Empathy is the key to success, despite being told time and time again that “nice people finish last.”
The real problem is, this becomes harder on a large scale, when you have thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of people.
And when we practice selective empathy – when empathy becomes biased – it can turn into an ability to relate to one group at the expense of relating to another group.
So, what’s a productive way to approach empathy when it comes to big issues?
One solution is to be as conscious as we can about empathy. Empathy, like other intense emotions, is just that, a feeling. So, it doesn’t always operate on a conscious level.
But, when you combine an unconscious tendency to empathize with a conscious effort to ensure you’re not limiting your empathy or your foresight, empathy becomes a ‘conscious emotion’. It becomes something you can wield for good.
It’s just like fear. It’s destructive and counterproductive to fear what’s irrational or what we can’t control. On the other hand, fear is powerful when we use it as a motivating force to keep ourselves and others safe. In fact, when we use it this way we don’t actually have to feel afraid or be overcome by the emotion.
When empathy is pure feeling, like fear, it can become irrational or destructive – we can empathize with one person’s struggle but disregard another’s. Or, we can fail to see the bigger picture, as Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom points out in his controversial book, Against Empathy.
Empathy is, however, powerful when we’re consciously using it to improve relationships, reach resolutions, and solve problems. When we take the time to listen, even to a viewpoint we don’t share or to a person we don’t normally get along with, we’re practicing conscious empathy and we can use it to drive positive results at work, at home, and in the world.
So what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy!