Harsh empathy

I’ve come up with similar findings in a series of studies done in collaboration with the Yale graduate student Nick Stagnaro. We start by giving people a simple test that measures their degree of empathy. Then we tell them some awful stories, about journalists kidnapped in the Middle East, about child abuse in the United States. And then we ask them how best to respond to those responsible for the suffering. In the Middle East case, we give a continuum of political options, from doing nothing to public criticism, all the way to a military ground invasion. For the domestic version, we ask about increased penalties for the abuser, from increasing their bail to making them eligible for the death penalty. Just as with the genetic study, we found that the more empathic people are, the more they want a harsher punishment.

Paul Bloom described the dark side of empathy recently in The Atlantic.

I knew immediately on reading Bloom’s article that there was something in it, something that I wanted to get it. It’s been a week since I read it, and I think I’m nearly there.

I knew, of course, that this applied to me. In the article, Bloom mentions “scans for specific genes that make people more sensitive to vasopressin and oxytocin, hormones that are implicated in compassion, helping, and empathy.” I’ve not taken one of these tests, but as someone who has been known to cry at television commercials, I’m fairly sure that I’d test fairly highly for these genes.

The dark side Bloom discusses certainly applies to me. I immediately dislike someone hurts someone else—physically or emotionally. I may think I can hide the fact that I dislike them, but experience has proven otherwise. I’ve twice had people I once knew come up to me years later and say “I got the impression that you didn’t like me much.” They were right. In both cases, the person had once done something to a close friend. Not anything terrible, just the standard unkindness of someone who is being thoughtless.

Empathy can be a dark lens through which I view people. I don’t think I fully realised this until reading Bloom’s article. When friends and family are involved, this has affected my personal life. But I can see now that it’s affected my professional, as well.

I can recall a conversation with a colleague at a new job. Another new recruit and I had a question about some button copy. We were both fairly convinced that the copy wouldn’t be clear to our customers. It was a gut feeling on both our parts, but the copy just felt wrong. We started to discuss it with someone who had been at the company for much longer than us. His response was something along the lines of “that copy works.” It was said with absolute certainty. My immediate response was “Really?” You know the kind of “really?” I’m talking about. The kind intended to make the other person feel like an idiot, dripping with disdain.

Just as Bloom describes in the article, this disdain was coming from the right place: empathy for our customers. The reaction was over the top, though. I may have been taken aback by their certainty, but it proved well founded. It turned out, I was the idiot and I had jeopardized a relationship with a person I’d need to work with closely on a daily basis.

My first job out of high school was working for Greenpeace. I spent about a year there, but eventually left. One of the reasons I left was because of the way we talked about the people who ran companies. At a city council meeting, one of our members found herself talking to the head of a company responsible for an incinerator we were trying to shut down. It wasn’t until halfway through the conversation that she realised who he was. She told us about this during one of our meetings. She said said he was actually rather nice. Perhaps we should see if we should speak to him. She was immediately shouted down.

Greenpeace didn’t manage to shut down the incinerator, at least not while I was there. The thing I learned from being at Greenpeace is that you can’t talk to a monster, and we choose who to turn into a monster. Perhaps, though, our empathy for other people makes this choice for us.

A lot of people who do what I do for a living spend a lot of time with the customers of they companies they are working with. We spend even more time thinking about those customers. Our job is coming up with solutions with those customers in mind. This is absolutely what we should be doing.

However, that dark side or empathy comes up again and again. Our empathy for customers results in unnecessarily harsh judgements. We judge the people who did the work that preceded us, the people that run the companies we work for, the people that we work with on a day to day basis.

I was once speaking with a friend about a usability review of a website he’d worked on over a number of years. It was clear that he felt the whole thing was a waste of time. It turns out the problem was that the review contained comments along the lines of “Clearly, no consideration has been given to…”, “It appears that no one has thought about…”, “Not sure what the aim was here.” These comments were certainly coming from the right place: empathy for the customer, but the end result of these comments was that nothing in the usability was going to be acted on.

This friend had worked passionately over a number of years to make his company succeed and had been involved in most of the areas of the website which were being commented on. His response to the comments was something along the lines of “F*** them. They clearly don’t understand the challenges and thinking that went into those pages. They didn’t even ask about it. We’re not changing anything.”

I didn’t write that usability review, but I could have. There are several heuristic reviews I’ve written that may well have contained that kind of language. Now I find myself wondering whose work I was dismissing and if I managed to offend someone to the point that they simply ignored those recommendations. 

Empathy for people—for our customers—is a good thing. It can backfire on us, though. Our misplaced judgements can inadvertently make our jobs difficult if not impossible. If I had asked questions instead of coming out with a thoughtless “Really?”, I would have had a better starting point making improvements. If Greenpeace had managed to speak to the head of the company as a human being rather than a monster, perhaps some compromise could have been made. If the author of the usability review had been able to apply the Peel mantra and honor the work done by others, some of the opportunities for improvement would almost certainly have been acted on.

The more I do what I do, the more I feel that the hardest part of my job is taking the time to listen. I really like what John Maeda has said about storylistening. Each of the examples of harsh empathy I’ve given above involves someone “getting stuck in their own story.” That button copy is worse for our customers. Anyone who runs a company that pollutes is inherently evil. Whoever designed this website didn’t have their customers in mind at all. None of these things are true. And believing they’re true clouds our judgement and means that we’re quite simply misinformed. It takes time to listen past our judgements, but in the end doing our jobs well means doing the hard work of listening before we make a decision.