Humanity is frequently pictured as inherently wired for fighting, stealing, and killing. When we look at a world riddled with war and conflict, this view seems to hold true. But this may be more a result of an inborn herd instinct. The same mechanism that sends us to join a sports club or choir applies to nations as well. It’s when friction forms between these large-scale groups that major problems start to arise. Frans de Waal has made it a part of his life’s work to illuminate humanity’s inborn empathy. Simply put, without parents nurturing their children or members of a community looking out for one another, we just wouldn’t be here. de Waal takes a deeper look at these qualities in his work, The Age of Empathy.
Our connections with other people are what drive us. We don’t often realize it, but we register emotions in people that we are not even aware of. Swedish psychologist Ulf Dimburg conducted priming experiments in the 1990’s. Participants viewed flashcards of happy or sad faces at speeds that could not be processed consciously, yet they still mimicked the expression they saw.
The Long Peace
And, despite appearances, the world seems to be turning into a more empathic place. Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the “Long Peace” period after World War II actually follows a longer trend over the last 500 years of history. Conflict has been falling. That a greater number of once marginalized groups have also seen more advocacy for their rights and less persecution, serves as another example of empathic improvement. However, we cannot rest on our laurels, but must continue to cultivate and champion empathy. Otherwise, we may find ourselves losing many of these gains.
How to Acquire Empathy
Empathy is often the result of dedicated effort. Investigative reporters have altered their appearances and changed their lifestyles to discover the truth about situations different from their own. British writer George Orwell was homeless for two years, which gave him the material for Down and Out in Paris and London. American journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin to write the book Black Like Me. However, our practice of empathy doesn’t need to be so drastic. Even the places where we spend our daily lives offer opportunities to cultivate our empathy in small ways.
Empathy at Work
In his new autobiography, Hit Refresh, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, describes the role of empathy in his leadership. He also recognizes the need for empathy’s conscious cultivation. As a leader, it helps gel a team. As an innovator, adopting a customer’s mindset enables Microsoft to meet people’s needs and build successful products. Empathy with your end user also helps create meaning in your work. Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen describe Clorox’s strategy in their book, Wired to Care. Clorox started new messaging that played up their product’s role in their users’ lives: “Moms are Cleaning Heroes.” The company began to find that the staff found more significance in their work from just this simple connection.
Given that empathy is a skill, building up this skill in children will reap rich rewards down the road. Michele Borba, the author of Unselfie, suggests people-watching in the mall and asking your child: “Who looks frustrated, eager, stressed, or bored?” This way, we can begin to build a more empathic generation.
Not that we outgrow our capacity to empathize. It is a fundamental part of being human. We can nurture it across many aspects of our lives. By doing so, we can work together in more fruitful ways and build more harmonious societies. All it takes to get started is just to slip in someone else’s shoes.