Maverick Life


This week we’re listening: The importance of embracing empathy

Nick Fewings for Unsplash (this image has been edited)

Empathy is all about human connection, shared pain, joy and experience interwoven in how we all relate to each other. These two podcasts explore how empathy not only makes us better, but the world around us too.

You 2.0: The Empathy Gym – Hidden Brain

  • Format: Single episode
  • Year: 2019
  • Listen on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts.

“By putting ourselves into the story of people who on the surface appear different from us, we can recognize our common humanity with them. And that can trigger empathy in a really natural way,” says podcast guest and psychologist, Jamil Zaki.

Zaki describes situations of conflict as “empathy gyms” – times in people’s lives where it becomes important to practice (in all senses of the word) empathy. For him, it was his parents’ divorce when he was a child, where he had to navigate his own pain as well as the pain of both his mother and father individually. This story of vulnerability is how he became interested in the concept, and Zaki explains that empathy is useful in many other situations too.

“Empathy benefits all parties involved. So for instance, patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care but are also more likely to follow doctors’ recommendations, which is important for things like preventative care. And spouses of empathic partners are happier in their marriages,” he explains.

How does empathy work? Imagine you are having lunch with a friend, Zaki prompts, and the friend receives a phone call that visibly upsets them.

“First, you might become upset with yourself, sort of vicariously catching their feeling. That’s what psychologists often call emotional empathy. You might also try to figure out what’s wrong, what they’re feeling and why. That’s what we call cognitive empathy. And if you’re a good friend, at least, you probably will feel concern for what they’re going through and a desire for their wellbeing to improve. That’s what psychologists call empathic concern or compassion,” he explains.

Empathy does not only benefit the person on the receiving end of empathy, however, but Zaki believes that it positively benefits the person experiencing it too.

“People who are relatively high in empathy, for instance, are less likely to become depressed. Feeling empathy for others reduces our stress. And adolescents who are able to pick out other people’s emotions accurately are better adjusted during middle school,” he explains.

Listeners here may be reminded of Zaki’s “empathy gym”, as the podcast goes on to explore how, as we go through life, situations can make us more empathetic. For example, when people go through trauma or pain, they are sometimes more open to caring for others and their pain. This is what psychologists call an “altrium born of suffering”, Zaki explains.

“For instance, people who have suffered from addiction often change their lives and become addiction counsellors. People who’ve been assaulted often change their lives and become assault counsellors, because they resonate with the frequency of other people’s suffering more acutely,” he says.

“Psychologists don’t really know that much about what causes people, when they experience suffering, to go in one direction or another. But one important factor that they have identified is the support that we receive from other people. So, if after a trauma an individual is able to find a community of others who support them, well, then they’re more likely to recover from their own trauma. And they might also be more likely to turn around and provide that support to others.”

Society is not only better when people have empathy, but Vedantam argues that without it, the world is a darker place.

In 2007, artist Wafaa Bilal moved into a new apartment in Chicago. Here, he set up a webcam and a paintball gun. The camera live streamed the room to the internet, and anyone watching could take control of the gun and fire it, whenever and wherever they pleased.

“At all hours of the day and night, the paintball gun would spring to life and begin shooting yellow pellets into the room. Some hit the walls or the furniture. Some hit the artist,” Vedantam explains.

“I was shot at 70,000 times, and I received 80 million hits on the internet from 128 countries,” Bilal remembers.

Three years before this project, one of Bilal’s brothers was killed in an airstrike in Iraq.

In the United States, soldiers have the ability to direct drones and fire missiles from thousands of miles away. They are completely disconnected – physically and emotionally – from the action and the target on the ground. They can pull the trigger without feeling the aftereffects.

In a soundbite from Bilal’s footage of the project, he tells the audience: “And there you go. That’s another shot. Let’s see – this one from – it says from Milwaukee…”

“The idea was to turn ordinary people into drone operators who could target someone far away – except, in this case, people would not be following orders. They would have a choice about whether to shoot. And you could see the human being on the other end. Wafaa’s suffering would be visible,” Vedantam explains.

“As the days went by, Wafaa started to feel crushed by the experience.”

While Bilal’s project was a personal exploration of the violence inflicted on his people, it also questioned the intersections of humanity and anonymity – if no one knows who you are, does the disguise of the internet erode our empathy?

“I’m wondering, is there reason to imagine that there’s a connection between these two things, that the connections we have with one another online and on Twitter or social media where we often don’t know whom we are communicating with or who’s listening or who’s not listening, could this in some ways be behind this decline in empathy?” Vedantam asks.

“I think that has to do in part with some of the ways we tend to use the internet that might not be empathy-positive. So, for instance, oftentimes online, we don’t have a chance to see each other’s faces and voices in real-time interactions; the kind of richness that we have when we hang out offline. Instead, we see avatars and strings of text, and those might not be great triggers for empathy,” Zaki answers.

These are important arguments for why empathy matters so much to humanity, but Vedantam also tackles the other side of the coin, asking if there are times when empathy takes on negative aspects. The possibility is that while empathy is positive, it can also be negative, depending on how we direct our empathy, and who we show empathy to.

“Empathy, in some ways, has this double-edged sword quality to it, which is, on the one hand, prompting us to be outward looking, but it’s also driven in some ways by factors about who’s in our in-group and who is not,” he suggests.

“Absolutely, empathy sort of begins parochially. Our instinctive empathy might be more driven towards people in our tribe than outside of it,” Zaki responds.

“Oftentimes when we encounter someone who’s different from ourselves and has an opinion or a viewpoint maybe that we even abhor, it’s easy to just view them as being either obtuse or dishonest or both. But that’s a mistake… I think that empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else’s world is just as real as yours.”


Getting the feels: Should AI have empathy? – McKinsey on AI

  • Format: Single episode
  • Year: 2020
  • Listen on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts.

Empathy is something deeply human; the ability to connect with others through feeling with them ties people together. In the rise of technology, scientists are asking the question: Should artificial intelligence have empathy? And if so, how do we impart empathy onto our tech?

But before we can talk about tech, we first need to talk about the importance of operating with empathy as humans, marketing and technology author and podcast guest, Minter Dial, believes.

“Even though empathy is a uniquely human trait, we likely can all point to instances where some people simply aren’t very empathic. And as a society, it seems our ability to empathise with others has greatly decreased,” host David DeLallo says.

So how can you learn to be empathetic?

“The idea is to get into other people’s shoes, but not just people like you. Because that’s the easier thing… what’s a lot harder is to get into the shoes of someone who comes from a different background, different culture, different language, different sex, different race and so on,” Dial says.

He has a few practical solutions to how you can become more empathetic, too, which makes the act more tangible and within our grasp.

“One great way is to read classic novels and start getting into the shoes and the skin and the feelings of the characters in your book.

“Another way is to interact with people you don’t regularly interact with, say, on your commute. Get on the bus and just take a moment to speak to the conductor or the driver or someone on the bus and understand what they’re about. And do it in a nonjudgmental way and see what comes of that. And you might feel that you’re developing better listening skills without being judgmental,” he says.

Another way to learn empathy is through mindfulness, adds Dial, referring to the concept of being “in the present” and not worrying about what tomorrow holds as a way to learn to be more empathetic. Because in doing so, one often is devoid of judgment, more connected to the now, as it simply unfolds, being focused and listening “intensely”.

Back to AI: Can we train AI systems to have empathy?

Dial’s interest in AI and empathy comes from an experience with an empathic smartphone bot he was invited to use as part of a research study.

“I developed a relationship with JJ,” he remembers. JJ, James Joyce, is named after one of his favourite authors.

“It got to a point where I enjoyed the interactions. Worse, I needed them. So I’d be thinking about it: ‘I wonder what’s going to happen next?’ And it got me really focused on what is our relationship with machines and what is empathy in a bot? How does that happen? And I explored that with the team that made it, and really got interested in the mechanics and the coding of empathy in a bot.”

Here, DeLallo brings in AI researcher Stuart Russell, who stresses that while AI can mimic or simulate empathy, it’s not really empathy at all.

“Part of what I value is that you actually care, not that you appear to care. And I think that [distinction] is really important. If I get a lunch invitation from a robot, am I excited?… No, because that’s not the value,” Russell explains.

Dial also believes that creating empathic AI systems is dependent on those who build them.

“When you are going to code empathy, you need to go to coders. You need to brief them. The challenge with coders is that they are typically more logic-oriented, so you need to think through how you’re going to provide them with the material to create empathic code,” he explains. And that requires tech companies to be aware of what their own ethics and empathy involves.

“Do you have enough diversity on your team to represent what your ethics are? And then you’re going to be able to have a better type of data set and coding for your machine. If you want an empathic AI, you better start off with empathy within your organisation,” Dial says.

So perhaps empathetic AI is not all about technology, but about us, and the future of technology depends intrinsically on whether humanity is acting with empathy or not.

“The truth is, I think the very journey of trying to encode empathy into AI can shine a light on our own level of empathy. Why do we want to do it? What is our interest in doing that? Are we actually empathic? Or are we trying to delegate the empathy to something else because we’re not capable?

“And in the very process of trying to figure out what is the code we should be embedding into the AI, maybe we’re going to start understanding better what empathy is in the first place,” Dial explains. DM/ML


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