Empathy, as I understand it, is the synergistic effect created through the willingness to use perspective-taking and sympathy in order to elucidate another person’s situation, emotion, and even thought-process. The problem that so often occurs when attempting to empathize with someone is our own predispositions and prejudices will sometimes inhibit us from doing so. So how can someone conjure empathy in a time when it’s needed, despite a paradigm that causes this inhibition? Luckily, empathy is malleable, and so, by implementing the right strategies, we can combat empathy’s limitations. Among the many strategies that can be employed, two that I believe would be beneficial to implement are: actively minimizing our tendency to excessively use social media, and deliberately choosing a positive rationale for a given situation rather than assuming the worst in another’s intentions. With two exams occurring at the same time my statistics homework is due, and the deadline for this very blog post arriving sooner than later, I’m extremely stressed out and can’t seem to get a good sleep for the life of me. Can you empathize?
There is a divide between those that believe social media facilitates empathy, and those that believe it decreases it. In my focus on social media regarding empathy, I discuss the empathy deficit that has occurred, which undeniably appears to correlate with social media usage. Particularly over the most recent decade, empathy has declined approximately forty percent. This decline is speculated to be due to the rise in narcissism that results from the excessive use of social media (O’Brien). As people become more and more plugged into their online profiles, they’re simultaneously receiving an abundance of media coverage on tragedies around the world that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to. This, in combination with the rise in narcissism, seems to be causing people to become desensitized to the pain others are experiencing. Putting that into perspective, I mention a particular case in which a fourteen-year-old boy takes his own life because of the resulting ridicule he received when a fellow classmate posted a video of him in the bathroom to social media (CBS this morning). I also mention Mel Wiggin’s experience with social media after the Paris attack occurred. In both situations, social media did not appear to elicit empathy, but rather it hindered it. The message to be taken from their experience is clear, and Wiggin’s has led by example. She openly states her own call-to-action; not for others, but for herself. By making her own call-t–action public, her intent is clear in that she hopes others will follow her in taking action as well. The action indicative of replenishing our empathic concern for others. This action is taken by deliberately lessening time spent on social media, refusing to have a phone out at the dinner table, and paying closer attention to how much conversing is done via technology. These are what she believes will be of great benefit to her, and I completely agree. Those that follow this change in ritualistic behavior regarding the use of social media should in theory begin to raise their trait affective empathy, and adhere to more empathic concern for others.
Adam Morton wrote an article titled “Empathy for the Devil,” which had less holes in it to contend with than that of social media’s implication on empathy. His argument distinguishes three dimensions for which we must have knowledge of in order to empathize with someone who commits an atrocious act. He makes the claim that decent people find themselves incapable of empathizing with these people because we don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of committing the same atrocious acts. He calls this “the blinkering effect of decency” (Morton). This is Morton’s explanation for what inhibits us from empathizing. While I didn’t completely disagree with Morton’s proposal, I did impose a counterargument. I demonstrated that it isn’t simply decent people that can’t empathize with those committing evil acts, but rather all people seem to struggle empathizing with any given action performed by another person to some degree. It merely depends on their own unique predispositions, and thought-processes that arise. These immediate thoughts are either allow them or disallow them to desire generating empathic concern. I claim that in order for us to empathize with these transgressors, we simply have to adjust our rationale and allow ourselves the realization that people are flawed (including ourselves), and typically anyone can be capable of committing such an act given the right circumstances (Miller). Essentially, we must give people the benefit of the doubt, as there are many possible intentions behind someone’s reason for acting in such a way. By doing this, we allow ourselves to experience the act in more neutral terms, rather than passing immediate judgement. This strategy for generating empathic concern via changing our rationale combats the immediate prejudice that arises, and allows us to consciously decide to perspective-take in a way that at least tries to eliminate our inherent biases. The outcome for doing so should bring about real change in the previous paradigm that existed before, and will ultimately set in motion a new way of viewing similar situations in the future in a more accurate manner.
Here, I describe Atticus’s character from the two contrasting lights that he is seen in throughout both To Kill a Mockingbird, and Go Set a Watchman. The conflicting opinions surrounding this iconic character are intriguing. Some believe he was a good man turned racist, while others believe he was racist all along. These are different people, analyzing the same character. Why does this sound familiar? Again we see that given a situation from which people can both see from different perspectives, those people arrive at different conclusions. This is due to the simple fact that the world is being viewed using different mental models called paradigms. Some can empathize with Atticus, and other’s can’t (or choose not to). The rationale being used to examine Atticus’s behavior in both novels differs from one person to the next, thus resulting in a huge difference of opinion. Another thing to consider is when people are viewing Atticus’s character, they are immediately activating the innate stereotypes and prejudices that underly their mental representations of a given situation. That’s why when it comes to empathizing with someone, it can be quite difficult if that person’s actions don’t match up with how we believe we would have acted in that moment (validating part of Morton’s argument). We see this with Jean when Atticus begins to demonstrate a prejudice she didn’t know existed in him. This newly found version of Atticus (as she see’s him) is not one with which she can empathize with. However, towards the very end of Go Set a Watchman, Jean encounters Dr. Finch (Atticus’s brother) and receives a lecture that really resonates with her. He tells her, “…every man’s watchman is his conscious. There is no such thing as a collective conscious” (265). Essentially, this means her and Atticus are different people, with different perspectives. They are bound to see things differently, but that doesn’t mean they are enemies because of this. They can live in harmony upon her accepting their differing beliefs, and attempting to see things from his perspective. In this example, we see that this approach to changing one’s rationale removes the previous inhibition, and breeds an ability to regain her empathy for Atticus.
Everyone has their own way for which they view the world. We use a sort of model that operates beyond our awareness. This is an extremely useful tool of sorts because it allows us to make snap judgements in dangerous situations, and saves us time when the immediate response is correct. However, rarely are our initial responses without bias, and those stereotypes are not as helpful when they’re flawed. Research in the field of perspective-taking has shown “Whether perspective-taking leads to forgiveness or condemnation depends on the intentions the perspective-taker initially attributes to a transgressor” (Lucas et al). This is precisely why it is so important to reduce narcissistic tendencies, and to change the paradigms we have when they are not benefitting us and those we should have empathy for. Like Mel Wiggin’s, I do hope readers of this blog begin to decrease their time spent on social media, because it will combat the narcissism that stands to reduce our empathic concern. I do hope readers will employ a new and improved rationale when faced with a situation that calls for empathizing with others, because it will combat the original stereotypes and prejudices that lay below the threshold of our consciousness. Like in changing any habit, this takes time, effort, and practice. It is my belief that given time, this reduction in narcissism should allow us to regain our empathic tendencies, and increase our desire to perspective-take. If we then begin to choose our rationale of a given situation, we can see a change in our ability to empathize as well as in our ability to empathize, and I’d even argue that we’d see a change in our overall well-being as well. The goal is to stay neutral in our judgment of another’s actions, so that while perspective-taking, we allow the emergence of sympathy. These are by no means the only strategies, and they might not even be the MOST effective, but I do feel that given the information I’ve encountered, these are two effective ways to regain the empathy that appears to be diminishing in the US, and will hopefully bring people closer together (as the function of empathy intended).
If you’d like to know more about the importance of empathy, click here.
Barney, Kendyl. The Lost Art of Empathy: The Virtue Mankind Still Needs. Washington U, 28 Mar. 2016, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/lost-art-empathy. Accessed 10 Nov 2016.
CBS This Morning. “San Diego teen commits suicide after bullying over embarrassing video.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 July 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZJvDhaSDnc. Web. 18 October 2016.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.
Lucas, B. J., A. D. Galinksy, and K. J. Murnighan. “An Intention-Based Account of Perspective-Taking: Why Perspective-Taking Can Both Decrease and Increase Moral Condemnation.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42.11 (2016): 1480-489. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.
Miller, Rowland S. Intimate Relationships. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2012. Print.
Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (2011): 318-30. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
O’Brien, Keith. “The Empathy Deficit.” BostonGlobe, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/17/the_empathy_deficit/?page=full. Accessed 18 October 2016.
To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. By Horton Foote. Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, and Phillip Alford. Universal-International, 1962.
Unknown. “Empathic Design: Is Empathy the UX Holy Grail?” 2016. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/empathic-design-is-empathy-the-ux-holy-grail.
Wiggins, Mel. “Social Media and the Empathy Deficit.” MelWiggins, http://www.melwiggins.com/2015/11/28/social-media-the-empathy-deficit/. Accessed 18 October 2016.
Yourself Series. “How can I have empathy for someone who is mean?” 2014. http://yourselfseries.com/teens/topic/empathy/how-can-i-have-empathy-for-someone-who-is-mean/.
Yourself Series. “What if that was me?” 2015. https://open.buffer.com/empathy/.