The empathy battle
Empathy has been seen as a highly valued skill among designers, and in society at large. But as its status has grown so has its usage and meaning. Empathy has become a buzzword, a tick-box exercise or marketing tool used to gain revenue, customer loyalty, and even to win elections. It has become a commodity to a point where people have started to turn its back on it, to question and criticise it. So, does empathy deserve its high place on a pillar, and if so, how can we better use it?
To be a good designer and communicator one needs be able to emphasise with the target audience. People want brands that ‘get them’ and talks to them at eye-level. They want product and services that fits into their lives and their lifestyle. Understanding their needs and desires is key to build brands, products and services that are relevant to them. Empathy adds depth to quantitative data and sets it in a wider, human context. This drives engagement and builds personal and emotional customer relationships that last.
But empathy has also been used to play on people’s heartstrings in advertising and marketing. To make consumers empathize with influencers, fictional characters and casted personas who set out to recognize our feelings, help us to connect and make us forget that what we’re prompted to watch is actually trying to sell us something.
Video games and VR takes this one step further and literally put us in the shoes of another. Challenging us to switch between killing threats one minute, to go on with our mundane everyday activities the next. A quite exhausting empathy swing.
In politics empathy has routinely been deployed to manipulate, seduce, deceive, and dehumanize others by means of vicariousness. One example is cynical politicians asking us to empathise with victim stories in order to gain public support for invasion.
Additionally, we are bombarded with emotional content online, and it’s easy to just tune out when we don’t feel like responding to other people’s problems. We have started to choose what to feel for, which often means that we cut out what we find is emotionally challenging. A numb disconnected feeling towards mass suffering, tribalism, isolation and mental health issues has long been on a rise whilstempathy is on a decline.
Digitalisation is often put to blame, but doesn’t it also seem reasonable to question whether our miss-use of empathy can have something to do with it? Professor Paul Blooms thinks that we have started to make decision based on emotionality instead of rationality. In his book he criticises empathy for being bias, singular and an easy tool for unpleasant ends. And he is starting to gain support.
The NPR show Invisibilia has long had empathy at its core. Their show is based on personal stories that listeners are being challenged to empathize with. However, their recent episode ”End of empathy” didn’t challenge whether or not we could see ourselves in each other; instead, it challenged whether or not we should.
Similarly, Martha Cotton held her talk ”Is the age of empathy dead?” on this years SXSW’s event. She sees how empathy is being increasingly commoditized in boardrooms and classrooms and believes that designers have an important role in reclaiming it stature. She says, “We need to help the world know that empathy is not a miracle, it’s not this instantaneous thing. It takes work and rigour. And we can’t sell it short”.
So how can we then use empathy in a good way?
We need to take empathy seriously. You won’t understand how it is to be blind by putting on a blindfold and walk around. You need to talk to people, encounter different perspectives, and really listen objectively in order to take informed decisions based on empathy.
We also need to use empathy with purpose. Brands can show their empathetic side but should be careful to play on their consumers’ ability to empathize. If they do, it should be for the sake of a greater purpose, not only for the brand, but also for the consumer and society at large. Storytelling, VR, gaming, video… We work with medias that are highly effective empathy triggers, lets us them for good.
Lastly. We need to stop thinking about empathy as something unlimited, given that it’s not. Empathy is a highly valuable asset that people now are starting to use more carefully. Let’s take that into account and create communications that invites to more empathy, not less.