Multidimensional empathy: a half-serious analytical framework

Progress requires action. Action in any form—political, commercial, charitable, religious, etc.—requires crossing the divisions that exist in the world. Crossing divisions requires trust. Trust requires empathy.

Therefore: Progress requires empathy.

Roughly, that’s the thinking behind the use of empathy as an analytical category and practical instrument in the social impact space. Empathy appears in a variety of ways: fundraisers use it to unlock donations; designers build it with end-users; advocates leverage it to spur political action. In all cases, it aims to create a connection between individuals across some kind of divide.

On its face, empathy is a good thing. The world is better off when you consider the pain someone else suffers alongside your own. We become less nationalistic, less parochial, and more willing to cooperate.

However, empathy can be misapplied. A crude use of empathy leverages caricatures and misrepresentations—think photos of emaciated children—to provoke emotional responses. These are effective when raising money, while undermining long-term understanding. Positive caricatures do their own form of damage, as when designers make heroic assumptions about their end-users.

These misapplications have sometimes been called false empathy, but as in most of life, it’s a matter of degrees. Understanding the nuances of empathy, in its more and less honest forms, requires disaggregation along two axes: symmetry and blend.

Symmetry: Unilateral v. reciprocal empathy

Meaningful empathy requires some amount of two-way connection. It requires both give and take. Contrast two versions: 1) unilateral empathy experienced when viewing a heart-wrenching photo of a natural disaster or even reading a detailed news story, where the “objects” of empathy do not even know they are playing that role; and 2) a reciprocal conversation you have directly with someone impacted by the same events. While neither gives you complete understanding, you are moved and drawn in by the latter in a much more honest way.

Social media has lowered the barriers to all of these connections, but broadcasts (think Kony 2012) still have more reach than conversational exchanges. Attempts to simulate a two-way exchange (e.g. giving the audience a proxy voice in the story, or providing letters from sponsored children) can spark more empathy, but it’s questionable whether it involves better empathy.

Better empathy means allowing some form of feedback loop—especially critical in design processes—and also leaving a piece of yourself behind. Exchange programs, living in unfamiliar places, and other immersive experiences allow the building of lasting relationships that are the epitome of reciprocal empathy.

Blend: Emotional v. intellectual empathy

It might seem obvious that empathy is always emotional, but there is a less stirring form of understanding that deserves equal billing. Intellectual empathy is the ability to comprehend someone else’s viewpoints and opinions, even when their premises, methods of reasoning, and conclusions may be very different from your own.

“I don’t see how anyone could possibly think…” is the surest indicator that intellectual empathy is missing, and partisan politics is its largest black hole. Otherwise intelligent people find themselves unable to wrap their heads around the logic of political opponents. However externally flawed someone’s analysis may be, there is always some amount of internal logic to it. Intellectual empathy is the ability to see that logic.

While we might take the symmetry of reciprocal empathy as unequivocally better than the unilateral form, the emotional v. intellectual divide calls for a balance. Emotional-only empathy lacks self-reflection and facilitates simplistic responses. Intellectual-only empathy risks a form of cold calculation that de-humanizes; it’s the empathy of early ethnographers, studying their subjects but unwilling to relate with them as equals.

Efficient empathy

Empathy doesn’t occur naturally in the quantities needed to make the social progress we want. So the sector manufactures it. However, when manufactured or induced for a specific purpose, empathy struggles to be honest. It gets caught in the goals for which it was manufactured, leaning heavily toward the emotional and unilateral variety. The manufacturers will point to market pressures, the demands of efficient production, and the fact that reciprocal empathy doesn’t scale. These are valid points, as far as they go.

In the case of environmental pollutants, we use regulation to reduce externalities. Is it time to regulate empathy pollution? Or maybe organize a consumer (donor) boycott of inorganic empathy? At a minimum, we can look to empathy innovators who demonstrate the market demand for more honest forms.

Of course, there’s no such thing as perfect empathy. Reciprocity and a balance of emotional/intellectual won’t fully bridge divides. We never truly understand someone else’s experiences. But we can get a lot closer than we currently do.