Roman Krznaric, cultural thinker, writer and arbiter of social change, is of the opinion that the world is suffering from a ’empathy crisis’. This crisis, he explains, is contributing to a global boom in narcissism caused a growing digital culture and is stopping us from connecting with others on a deeper, more meaningful level.
By practicing empathy, according to Krznaric, we can unlock the ability to enhance our creativity, improve our relationships, tackle social problems and prejudices and perhaps most important of all – rethink our own priorities in life, giving us the tools to change our life, or the life of others.
So what is empathy and how can we practice it effectively?
Affective Empathy Vs Sympathy Vs Cognitive Empathy: What is the difference and what is the most important factor in enacting social change? Or is it a combination of all?
This is what affective empathy looks like: you see anguish on a child’s face and you too feel anguish. It’s about sharing or mirroring someone’s emotions. That makes it different from sympathy, which is an emotional response that is not shared – so you might feel pity or feel sorry for the anguished child, thinking to yourself ‘oh, the poor little thing’. Cognitive empathy is when you really try to imagine what it’s like to be another person. What is it like to be a homeless guy and to have people walk past you on the street without looking you in the eye. It’s sometimes called ‘perspective taking empathy’. Social change requires both affective and cognitive empathy – you need to see others’ perspectives, but also feel an emotional resonance with them.
You say we are suffering from an “empathy crisis” – why do you think this is the case and what does it mean for mankind?
Empathy levels are on the decline in many countries – they’ve dropped nearly 50% in the US in the last three decades (though I admit empathy is hard to measure – it’s usually done by surveys). Why is this happening? Partly because consumer culture and the self help industry encourage us to ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ – bringing our our self-interested individualist side, rather than our empathic selves, which are equally wired into us. It’s also because of a global boom in narcissism, perhaps brought on by digital culture. There’s research showing that the more Facebook interactions you have, the more narcissistic you’re likely to be.
How does one ‘practice’ empathy, especially when they are particularly narcissistic?
I’d say the key is nurturing your curiosity about strangers. Have a conversation with a stranger at least once a week – the Afghani guy who sells you the paper each morning, the quiet librarian living across the street. And make sure you get beyond superficial talk – talk about love, death, family, religion. Conversation is one of the best ways of challenging our assumptions and prejudices about others.
How can empathy be responsible for motivating social action?
What makes us care about asylum seekers, or indigenous rights, or the rights of disabled people? Ultimately, it’s about putting yourself in their shoes and trying to imagine being them. This is probably the most effective way of expanding the circle of our moral concern. And this is what lies at the basis of being motivated to take action on human rights and social justice issues. Empathy is what makes us care.
Can you teach empathy in people who have previously been unresponsive?
It’s tough. One of the best things to do is model it. If you show an interest in other people’s feelings and needs, especially through listening to them empathically, there’s a good chance they’ll reciprocate. In addition, I’d say send them out to have some of those conversations with strangers.
In your ideal world, would everybody practice empathy and do you think the world would be a different place if this was the case?
Absolutely. I think empathy should be a school subject like maths or English. The good news is that you can learn it, like learning to ride a bike. There’s a great programme called Roots of Empathy that brings a baby into the classroom and the kids discuss what the baby is thinking or feeling – it’s a brilliant way to switch on their empathic brains. And if we can institutionalise teaching empathy skills in this way the world would begin to look different. We might, for instance, improve our capacity to empathise with future generations who will be hit by climate change – and take more action on their behalves as a result.
What are the six different ways that we can bring out our empathic potential?
Talk to me about your tour, what will you be touching on and why do you think it’s important for others to heed your message?
I’m doing a series of talks, workshops and public discussions on empathy while in Australia. I think empathy is a particularly relevant – even urgent – topic in Australia right now. I’m something of an outside observer – an Australian who has lived overseas for many years – but it’s clear that there’s something of a toxic ‘us versus them’ mentality that pervades much of public life today. You can see it in the debate around asylum seekers, which is full of fear, prejudice and misunderstandings. There are also key empathy issues around domestic violence and indigenous rights. I hope my tour can help spark new kinds of public discussions around these issues, as well as show how empathy can be of use in personal life. Viva la Empathy Revolution!
To read more about Roman Krznaric, visit his website here.