Empathy and how we connect.

I read about a study the other day that indicated participants who were shown a digitally aged image of themselves, were more likely to make good financial decisions around planning for retirement. This is interesting research that flagged again to me the need to be able to identify or empathise with an individual, cause or issue – in this case our future selves – in order to make appropriate and productive decisions in the present day.

For me the key element here is that of empathy and how we connect.

Personally on a daily basis dealing with clients, friends and family, this is brought home. Dealing with my seven year old’s first experience of schoolyard bullying, working in a busy marketing agency where there are consistently competing demands and considering the challenges of our clients from both a personal and strategic or business perspective all require empathy – or rather these considerations are made more effective when I empathise. Even within social media empathy becomes important and can have a powerful motivating force for engagement.

As a citizen of the world I would like to think I care about where the greatest injustice is – and give my energy and donations to this cause. But the reality is I give to that which I know and can personally empathise this. Bill Gates in a must see session on ABC’s Q&A the other night was really clear on this point. He actively practices what he preaches and puts his money where he believes he can make the biggest difference on the issues he is passionate about. These are causes he has a strong feeling (or empathy) for and include causes such as eradicating malaria, polio and improving the quality of teaching in the US. Big hairy issues that are expensive to fix. While yes, he is following  Warren Buffet’s challenge of focusing philanthropy on the tough issues, Gates is clearly also utilising empathy as a major driver for change in his personal philanthropic work.

From a health communications perspective, the current shift  to a patient centred model also asks for a shift towards empathy. The benefits and impact on patient behaviour change when a medical practitioner actively engages, remains present and empathises with their patient’s are well documented. The health outcomes are significantly improved and can apparently account for more positive change than any other element alone.

It seems I have recently connected to a collective interest in this area as there has been a recent flourishing of research and writing on empathy. The interest is in some ways unsurprising for if we can find out how empathy works maybe we can learn how to cultivate it individually and collectively. Just the other day a report was published in the in the scientific journal PLOS ONE that indicates that empathy plays a key role in moral judgements and that those who are willing to hurt one for the sake of many when posed with this classic dilemma are likely to be deficient in empathy.  

To be without empathy – or lack empathy are part of the standard checklist for a clinically described psychopath. Others go as far to equate evil with “empathy erosion.” A recent article in the New Yorker comments on the interest in empathy and draws in the aspect of bullying. Highlighted is a new book “Sticks and Stones“ where Emily Bazelom writes, “The scariest aspect of bullying is the utter lack of empathy”- a diagnosis that she applies not only to the bullies but also to those who do nothing to help the victim.

There is no doubt  that practising empathy has the capacity to create a more engaged workforce, reduce bullying , foster healthy communities and will, we can all hope, encourage a new generation of Australian philanthropists.

Rebecca is Ellis Jones’ Account Director, Health and Ageing.

image credit: aerie