Models of Empathy

Empathy Pyramid English Slide1For those unfamiliar with the academic life, allow me to give you the gift of a secret.  We get famous by being different.  And by being first.  It’s one of the things that generates the academic mind — you are rewarded with reputation for EXCLUSIVITY of knowledge.  But you’re employed by an institution who wants you to teach others.  So think about that — could you have a more conflicted set of social incentives?  The more people that learn from you, the less exclusive your knowledge is.  And the more your reputation declines.  There’s some critical point where all this results in a body of followers, and you become famous.  But that’s not true for most of us.

Because of this phenomena (and others that I’ll discuss in future posts) academics are always generating new theories.  Some new theories are derivative — or really, refinements of old theories. Occasionally someone will publish a new theory on something.  This is as true for work in empathy research as any.

But for lots of reasons (which have to do with social organization) there’s little incentive for people to look around a given field and find a way to connect the dots, or assemble the pieces into a larger, aggregate theory.  First off, it’s hard to prove rigorously that the assembled pieces actually fit together.  Second — there’s no glory for the assembler.  All you’ve done is borrow others’ works.  No bump in reputation for you. Like the blind men and the elephant, you get your academic reputation by describing the texture of the elephant’s tail to the nth degree and declaring it the only way to understand an elephant.  You get a beating if you try to connect other blind men’s understandings of the elephants and assemble an aggregate picture of the elephant.

Let me put it this way — it’s not the route to tenure.

What this has led to is a dearth of what might be called Integral Theories.  In particular, it’s really led to very few Evolutionary Theories — not about human evolution, mind you — but how ideas evolve, and where the current path of theoretical development will lead.

Because ideas DO lead to other ideas.  When we had a flat Earth, we were limited.  Making the Earth a sphere, and then positioning it revolving around the Sun led to other things.  In hindsight, those insights were predictable.  But those improved understandings emerged naturally from previous work.

Empathy is no different.  So I’m posting my picture of my Emergent and Evolutionary Theory of Empathetic Development.  It’s the picture at the top of this post.  The short version is this:

Mirroring behavior — I yawn, you yawn.

Emotional empathy — I pick a baby up when it’s crying, and sooth it on an emotional level.

Rational empathy — I think about and anticipate your needs without you being in the room.

Global empathy — we are all connected, which is why we care about 300 schoolgirls being kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram.

I’m limiting myself with all my blog posts to be around 500 words.  So I’ll stop.  But now you can see where we’re going.

Takeaway:  Empathy is an evolutionary, emergent phenomena.  And academics can be ridiculous.

Further Reading:  The Age of Empathy, by Frans de Waal.  He’s the grand old man of empathy research, and there are lots of interesting stories in the book.

Note:  this is an old post, that did not properly reference Frans’ matryoshka empathy model in his book.  I’ve updated this in other posts, but wanted to make this clear.

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