Authentic empathy – is there any other type?

We thought we were getting pretty good at empathy but 2016 showed us that we have a lot to work on. The shock of Brexit, Trump and similar events around the world suggest that we have been perhaps a bit selfish and selective in how, when and with whom we are empathetic. 2017 sees a rampedramped-upfor empathy – it’s now more important than ever. But it needs to be empathy that is authentic, humble and self- aware.

The business side of empathy

Empathy is a critical skill for good leadership, helps leaders to inspire and gain loyalty, and aids in building better, more effective teams. Empathy is at the heart of human-centered design-thinking, allowing designers to create better products and services. In short, empathy is a competitive advantage.

Intelligent and sensitive insights provide an understanding of real people’s lives, concerns and experiences – but knowledge isn’t empathy. You still have to feel their joy, their frustrations and care about solving their problems. You have to show respect as a first step, then be willing not just to listen but to hear and feel their emotions and experiences.

There is now an Empathy Global Index that ranks how empathetic a company is based on their ethics, leadership, internal culture, brand perception, social media messaging, carbon footprint, number of women in senior positions and so on. According to Harvard Business Review, the value of the top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased more than double than that of the bottom 10, and generated 50 percent more earnings (defined by market capitalisation).

But there is now a thing called ‘empathy fatigue’, which is bad news. In a world beset with civil wars, economic, social, environmental and human rights issues (that show up frequently in our social media feeds), human understanding and connection are fundamental to unity and change yet seem to be breaking down more than ever – empathy is in short supply.

Measuring empathy

Even before the events of 2016, people were searching desperately for effective ways for people to feel more empathy. Technology is an obvious tool. To close the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ Project Empathy is aiming to use Virtual Reality as an ‘empathy machine’, beginning with true stories of the US prison system in their fight for prison reform.

“Through empathy, we are able to identify the needs of ourselves and others, we gain tools to communicate more effectively and can more easily find solutions to problems we never realised existed. Empathy is the stepping stone to tolerance and well-being, the bedrock to any strong community.”

In March 2017, hundreds of Ambassadors of Empathy will travel to 50 U.S. state capitals to ask policy makers to virtually experience the human consequences of a criminal justice system. To ascertain how effectively they were able to create empathy, they will follow it up by measuring the impact on people’s behavior. What if we do something similar with customer experience? Imagine how quickly and effectively we would be able to transform the experience, like ‘Undercover Bosses’ but in a VR environment. It would undoubtedly increase the empathy quotient of customer and user experience professionals. 

Technology and empathy, for better and worse

On the flip side, it is feared that technology is making us less empathetic by allowing us to circumvent human interaction. It’s much easier to decline an invitation by text message than face-to-face, for example, because you don’t have to deal with the emotions of the other party.

Much effort is going into making AI more empathetic. Ironically, studies have shown that when machines can understand empathy, humans feel more comfortable talking to the machine as they do not feel judged and feel more free to be honest.


Self-empathy, or self-care, was a hot topic in wellness and pop culture in 2016. Self-care emphasises taking the time to care and refresh yourself emotionally, becoming more attuned to your emotional state to allow you to better empathise with others. Even New Zealand road signs are suggesting you get more in touch with your emotional side and the relationship with those around you, asking, “Are you grumpy? Take a break.”

A failure of empathy (or success, depending on your political stance)

With empathy at the forefront of business, design, social change, technology (vs. humanity) and wellness, how can we explain the shock of the political events of 2016, where the election of populist nationalists around the globe literally upended many people’s worlds? 

Half a nation was shocked to find out that the other half of their country did not share the same fundamental morals. Out of touch, humiliated, stunned – in an effort to make sense of these unfolding events and maintain some sense of unity, a renewed call for empathy has arisen.

Humans are irrational creatures

Today’s neo-liberalised, free market-oriented world assumes rational, calculated decision-making. Thus, the decision to vote for a seemingly clearly unfit candidate (encapsulated by headlines such as “Why poor white people are voting against themselves”) seems completely illogical. People struggle to understanding this behaviour, describing the current climate as ‘the age of irrationalism’.

In his article Welcome to the Age of Anger, Historian Pankaj Mishra posits that the failure inherent in the economic paradigm that we are living in is that it completely omits emotion. “What counts is only what can be counted and that what cannot be counted – subjective emotions – therefore does not.”

What is predictable, he argues, is that the individual self is not a rational actor – “it is a deeply unstable entity, constantly shaped and reshaped in its interplay with shifting social and cultural conditions.”

This is supported by Kahnemann’s pioneering research into how we think finding that most decisions are made first by the emotional, intuitive System One and rationalised or over- ridden by the logical System Two – but System Two can still be affected by System One, so highly emotive decisions are often rationalised rather than over-ridden.

Mishra shows how historically, time and again, the dispossessed and those left behind have reacted in exactly the same way that this group is acting today: “as the world became modern those who were unable to fulfil its promises – freedom, stability and prosperity – were increasingly susceptible to demagogues.” 

In a society where success is attributed to individual choice, never have hard-working people felt so helpless. By all calculations, they should be getting ahead in life but this is not happening. The Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks suggest that behind all this is a fear of being unneeded. “This helps explain why pain and indignation are sweeping through prosperous countries. The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies.” Mishra puts it another way: “the further removed voters feel from the culture into which they were born, the more alien they feel in their own lands.”

Crossing the chasm

2016 showed us that we are not as good at empathy as we thought (nor history). From national calls for unity to Huffpost empathy tips, Buzzfeed “how empathetic are you?” quizzes, or Empathy Diaries in Kikki K, 2017, we will see a greater call for empathy throughout culture and unlike fake news, you can’t fake empathy – and why should you.

As the human-centered design process shows us, authentic, genuine empathy leads to a better result for everyone – more innovation, happier people, and a mutual understanding about what’s the right thing to do. However, to understand what’s truly simmering on a societal level, we need to look beyond and more broadly behind what people tell us, rather than just focusing what we think is needed to make a good product, service or marketing campaign.

Antonia Mann is a cultural strategist at TRA.

This article was originally published in The Cultural Intelligence Issue of TRA’s Frame publication.

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