Empathetic or Non-Empathetic? A Simple Test


Many a caiman, Mato Grosso do Sul, in the Pantanal, Brazil, 2006

I had an interesting experience the other day, that perfectly illustrated the principles of this blog.  I had volunteered myself to give presentations on my program, the Industrial Design Clinic, at a university workshop on STEM education. I was part of the breakout session group (not a core presenter), giving the same presentation twice in a 60 minute hour allotted.  There were three other competing breakout sessions at the same time, and approximately 40 participants.  The titles of all the sessions are below:


LSAMP and SOLES (two programs for Hispanic retention in STEM)

NSF Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate

 Piercing the ‘Fourth Wall’ in Education – Using Empathetic Connection to Authentic Audiences to Drive Student Performance – Charles Pezeshki

It’s a fun exercise to guess how many people were in the first and second session, so I won’t ruin the fun.  You can also guess, in a crowd of academics, the general receptivity to the idea that empathy and connection matters.  I will give you one hint — Group 1 was very receptive and open minded;  Group 2 not so much.

One thing that got Group 2 really going (and not in a good way) was an assertion that I made that I could tell at-a-distance whether someone was empathetic or not by writing them a note, telling them about my interest in their work, and seeing if they write back.  Those that write back are, by my quick assertion, empathetic.  Those that don’t likely aren’t.  My standard for whom I write to is pretty simple.  I’ve read their work, and think there might be an opportunity for connection.  Some people are famous or well-renowned;  some people aren’t.  I’ve found that it doesn’t make much difference.  Some scaled statistic of both groups will write back.

One of the people that emotionally reacted (a great sign where this person does most of their thinking — this is a marker in itself) started saying ‘you can’t say that!  Maybe they were busy!’  I honestly hadn’t expected such a strong reaction, and realizing that a good hunk of my audience was there to hear about my program, I redirected the conversation, and sent them, detractors as well, to my blog.  I’m not too worried that those that got hot under the collar will read it– unless someone points them to this post as an affront to their status.

The person’s comment, however, made me think.  Is this a fair assessment?  What does it mean if someone’s too busy to write back?

If someone’s too busy, there are two likely scenarios that may be in play.

  1.  That person gets so much e-mail every day that my e-mail gets lost.  I try to compensate for this scenario by adding a high-value subject line so that people know why I’m writing, and what material I’m referring to in their work (nothing like a little egocentric tagging!)  From my own experience getting e-mails from potential graduate students around the world, I’d argue few e-mails get lost.  There’s also no way of reliably measuring this without an experiment, and I have no idea how you’d even construct such an experiment.  Considering all the various things that show up in my mailbox, it’s a pretty valid assertion that e-mails don’t get lost.
  2. That person looks at the sender (me) and decides not to either read my e-mail or write back.  Psychologists, for example, doing research in empathy NEVER write back (Legalists, and not in their in-group!) Northern Europeans almost always write back (empathetically developed societies) except those that are psychologists!  Exploratory mathematicians write back — some very famous ones!  Maybe I’m in their in-group, but they would have no way of knowing my background, though they might think I’m in their out-group, as a transdisciplinary dude.  Or they might be empathetic.  Medical doctors who publish in this area almost always write back.  I’d argue the ones that don’t write back look at a.) my status, and b.) my in-group, and decide not to write back.  Those that write back likely write back because the content is resonant — I can tell that by their responses.  Those that don’t — well, I’ll bet if someone famous wrote them, they wouldn’t be too busy.  Rejection is a status-based issue.  In their world, I’m not important enough to respond to.  And the idea of metacognitive stretch isn’t important (remember that metacognition and empathetic development go hand-in-hand!)

What that means, of course, is that they’re non-empathetic.  And while the reliability of the assertion (limited only to the pool of potential respondents I write to — every note I write takes about 10 minutes) may be in question, the validity of my assertion is pretty high.

Q.E.D.  😉

Takeaway:  Writing someone a meaningful e-mail and seeing if they write back is a great way to gauge empathy.  And I’m aware that Internet trolls and massive spamming can eliminate this avenue, I’m hopeful we’ll have it for a little longer.  When the topic is non-political, I’ve found that people are still pretty civil and open.


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