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empathy

Real social innovation needs empathy and understanding- podcast with Richard Hull

Enrique Rubio's picture

In this podcast, Richard Hull says that real social innovation needs empathy and understanding of the people and context upon which we want to make a difference. Richard is the Director of the Master’s Program in Social Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths in the University of London. One of the things that I found most interesting about his program is the motto of thinking of social entrepreneurship “outside of the box”, which Richard explains during the podcast.

He describes the strong connection that exists between creativity, which is the foundation of the program, and social entrepreneurship. Particularly, even though there’s a lot of innovation, creativity, and technology that is very visible, he says that there’s a lot of work going on quietly in the background, and it is important to understand its lessons, too.

Richard talks about the example of participatory market development approaches, where the design of innovation revolves around the poorest and most marginalized people. He mentions how some western technologies are dumped in developed markets, becoming totally inappropriate. Richard highlights that it is fundamental to create the innovations with the people who are going to end up using them, rather than imposing on them.

The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

Quote of the week: J.K. Rowling

Sina Odugbemi's picture

J.K. Rowling"Those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy."

-J.K. Rowling, a British novelist best known for writing the Harry Potter series. The books have gained worldwide attention, selling more than 400 million copies. Rowling led a "rags to riches" life story, in which she progressed from living on state benefits to multi-millionaire status within five years.


Quoted in her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University that has been published as a new book, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, and re-published online by the Guardian, "JK Rowling's life advice: ten quotes on the lessons of failure"

The Things We Do: Your Pain is My Pleasure

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Mel Brooks once famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

Certainly, we can all relate to this, whether we like to admit it or not.  When something unlucky happens to us, we feel it more deeply than those around us do, and we wonder why people do not immediately recognize the calamity.  Equally, we take pleasure when an opponent is beaten or find it a little rewarding when our enemy is cut down.  

The joy we experience from the pain of others is known as “schadenfreude” in German and is translated as “harm-joy”.

According to Richard H. Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, schadenfreude is an adaptive function that evolved from our need to make social comparisons.  These comparisons, he argues in a new book called The Joy of Pain, allow us to asses our strengths and weaknesses in the social order and thereby determine our social status.  Comparisons, though, can invoke envy, insecurity, and a sense of inadequacy if we find ourselves lacking in one dimension or another compared to someone else. These feelings can then trigger a desire to compete with or knock down those perceived to be superior.  When these desires are fulfilled organically, through no fault of our own, schadenfreude arises. 

Robin Hood and bureaucratic malfeasance

Markus Goldstein's picture

Driving home in my beat-up Honda last week, I listened to an interesting story on NPR on why good people do bad things.   One particularly interesting paper being discussed was by Francesca Gino and Lamar Pierce on how those folks who test your car emissions may be favoring folks who are more like them – malfeasance but with a