Rescuing empathy

Economics is famous for its idea – it’s better to call it a methodological assumption of some economics – that self-interest is what drives people. But something just as evident about people – and much more unique to our species – is people’s tendencies to form stable patterns of collaboration – or shared intentionality

I’m after illustrations of the way empathy matters to the way human systems operate. This is useful when the financial gatekeepers immediately think they’re dealing with a hippy when they hear words like “empathy”, as opposed to serious managerial words like “cost effectiveness” etc etc.

Anyway, here’s a good example of the phenomenon. There’s a series of articles in the medical literature showing that radiologists are better at diagnosis and detecting errors on scans that carry a photo of patient.

If you have any other examples – preferably supported with references – I’d love to hear them.

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6 Responses to Rescuing empathy

  1. suburbanite says:

    At the risk of being annoying – I wonder if empathy is quite the right term, or whether it is complete enough. Psychopaths apparently don’t lack empathy – in the sense that they do have insight into what people are feeling e.g. pain – they just don’t think it needs to be avoided. Plenty of predatory economic behavior also is practiced with an intimate knowledge of the effect it will have on the victims and what the will experience and think – isn’t that a kind of empathy?

    • john Walker says:

      You ,sort of, have a point – understanding how your ‘targets’ feel-think is a advantage.
      BTW Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo, is about a master-less wandering samurai who was a very sharp professional killer a nameless man, whos secret weapon turned out to be : “your kind” .
      (Mind you the film was made as a bit of fun)

  2. conrad says:

    I can give you many in the child/infant literature if you want. These are generally not examples of things like your example, but rather argue about the origins of pro-social behavior and show early effects less likely to be contaminated by social learning, reputation etc.

    One classic article is: which I can’t find free online (I can dig it up and put it on DB if anyone wants it).

    In terms of altruism which is closely related, an article in 2006 kicked off a large stream of research (The supplementary videos are super).

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Conrad,

      I’m aware of that literature and have used it in presentations – including some great videos.

      What I’m after here is illustrations of the economic utility of empathy. Always better with the hard heads.

      • conrad says:

        If you don’t want to argue about whether pro-social behavior in adults really is pro-social (I assume you don’t here), then arn’t the examples basically limitless? For example, people volunteer for all sorts of things that help other people become economically productive. For example, if I volunteer to help you over your drug addiction, social anxiety, train your seeing eye-dog, look after your child when you can’t for some work reason, help your child read or learn maths better after school etc. then this is presumably helping the economy. This extends to helping unknown others in other countries in dangerous situations and hence helping has a cost to the helper (e.g., think of the doctors/nurses that helped stop ebola and the type of work MSF does — basically helping countries with insufficient doctors).

  3. john Walker says:

    The following is a thought on the difference’s between basic -‘ I know how you feel’ , and compassion-love:

    “You could be aware of somebody in need but just objectify it, look at it, think about it. But then awareness should naturally move up the scale into attention, which is your personal attention to the personal needs of that person. Then, that will naturally move even further up the scale into compassion. And compassion has this sense of identification or this sense of oneness with, and then that must lead to action.”

    Laurence Freeman OSB

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