Trading for Compassion

I attended The Conference↗︎ this year on a recommendation about it being a little bit different than most conferences. I’ll admit that many conferences these days put me to sleep. Thankfully this experience was much more exciting, and I want to plug this particular talk by Tricia Wang↗︎ called, Don’t Trust the Truth!↗︎ Watch it and then come back to me.

The word empathy has been thrown around recently without abandon. Our industry loves the echo chamber. I think it must have reached peak usage sometime earlier this year along with the word vulnerability. After spending some time thinking about this on my recent hike, I believe that we’re still chasing the wrong thing.

I happened upon a podcast episode by Sam Harris talking to Yale University professor of psychology and cognitive science, Paul Bloom, who argues that if you want to be good or do good, empathy is a poor guide.[1]

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background.

This is the crux of the problem. We understand that there are biases in the industry yet we continually tout the word empathy around as a solution despite it being inherently biased.

The underlying message of empathy-pushers is that we cannot solve problems without feeling what another person is feeling. This is a fallacy. We do not need to know what it’s like to drown in order to save the drowning.

Empathy also leads the way towards armchair Slacktivism,[2] which we don’t entirely understand the implications of, as well as mental health concerns of individuals whom over-empathize emotionally causing long-term distress. Another interesting tidbit I chanced upon, tangentially related, is that those who lack empathy cannot be taught empathy anyway.[3]

If we can learn from anyone, Bloom points towards Charles Goodman who notes the distinction in Buddhist texts between sentimental compassion, which corresponds to empathy, and great compassion, which is a love for others without empathetic attachment.

Bloom notes this is further supported by ongoing experiments led by Tania Singer, psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist,

According to Singer’s results, among test subjects who underwent empathy training, “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations. . . . these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.” Compassion training—which doesn’t involve empathetic arousal to the perceived distress of others—was more effective, leading to both increased positive emotions and increased altruism.

We are coming up against many issues with lack of industry diversity. This directly influences the way we design our products. The ugliest and most embarassing case study I’ve seen recently was Google’s tagging algorithm which mistakes those with dark skin as gorillas.[4]

Unfortunately, those of us trying to explain this get frequently blocked by the defensiveness of the majority and the willfull ignorance of those defending the majority (more nods to Tricia for framing it in a unique way). Although, it’s not entirely their fault, many people cannot emphathize with things they will never experience.

As I research the topic more, I’m finding myself moving towards siding with those who believe that what we really should be chasing is compassion. Compassion can be practiced and seemingly, with great results. The first step is to simply listen.

↩︎ [1] Paul Bloom, Against Empathy↗︎, 9/10/2014

↩︎ [2] Slacktivism↗︎

↩︎ [3] For more about this, do some exploration into psychopaths with Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test↗︎

↩︎ [4] Alistair Barr, Google Mistakenly Tags Black People as ‘Gorillas,’ Showing Limits of Algorithms↗︎, 7/1/2015

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