Empathy – The Social Superpower

In October of 1962, the world stood on the brink. The unfolding events of the Cuban missile crisis seemed to be driving the world unstoppably towards unthinkable ends. Yet a peaceful resolution was found, and disaster averted.



Both officials in place at the time and current analysts agree that one of the factors was empathy.

In communications between Presidents Khruschev and Kennedy over several days, we see Khruschev repeatedly asking Kennedy to imagine the situation from his side –

“What if we were to present to you such an ultimatum as you have presented to us… how would you react…? I think you would be outraged…”

“If you were in my place…”

“try to put yourself in our situation”

“consider how the USA would react to such conditions”

He also creates a bridge of empathy by establishing their commonalities as world leaders, concerned for their people –

“If you are really concerned about the peace and welfare of your people, and this is your responsibility as President, then I, as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, am concerned for my people. Moreover, the preservation of world peace should be our joint concern, since if, under contemporary conditions, war should break out, it should be a war not only between the reciprocal claims, but a world wide cruel and destructive war”

And in his attempts, Khruschev found in Kennedy a counterpart likewise willing to look for connection points, as we see in one of his famous lines from a few months later, speaking of the US and the Soviet Union –

“So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”


If empathy is strong enough to improve communications and outcomes between world leaders on the brink of war, then it is worth considering the role of this powerful aspect of relationships and society.

Indeed, empathy is uniquely important in today’s globalised world, where many of us are in greater proximity – whether in person or virtually – to more people from more backgrounds than perhaps ever before. Navigating the world effectively requires a willingness and capacity to put ourselves in very different shoes.


1 – Empathy in our world today

There is an inverse relationship between narcissism and empathy

In very broad terms, the more we are the centre of our own universe, the less we are centring others and trying to understand and respond to their perspectives and needs.

In her excellent book, ‘The Life of I’, Anne Manne describes how narcissism – in extremely varying degrees – manifests in a variety of behaviours such as –

  • continual self-enhancement and bragging
  • efforts to gain social dominance
  • treating others as objects in relation to one’s self, not subjects of full agency and value in their own right
  • a sense of entitlement
  • a need to be the centre of attention
  • dominating conversations
  • exploitation of others for their own needs
  • anger-filled responses when their desires are thwarted or illusions of grandiosity are punctured

The more that narcissism dominates, with its attendant behaviours that contract our focus in from others to the limits of ourselves, the less room that empathy has to breathe and grow.


Statistically, empathy is declining

Sara Konrath is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research, a research lab at Indiana University. She helped lead a meta-analysis of data on empathy in US college studies from 72 studies run over 30 years, from 1979 to 2009.

She found that “College kids today are about 40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago” – with a particularly noticeable drop in the years since 2000. She found declining numbers of students answering in the affirmative to statements such as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”, and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

And though it’s perhaps seen most prominently in emerging generations, other studies like the 2016 ‘State of the Heart’ research done by Six Seconds into emotional intelligence show similar, though much less dramatic, declining empathy in the global population generally.


Empathy is often negatively correlated with wealth

A number of studies (such as this from Berkeley psychologists Piff and Keltner) have shown that as wealth increases, empathy generally decreases. Wealthier people are worse at recognising the emotions of others, less likely to pay attention to those they’re interacting with, more likely to cut someone off in traffic and less likely to give way to pedestrians.

One of the reasons thought to contribute to this is the fact that, often, the more wealthy someone becomes, the less contact they have with those in need, and the more time they spend in homogenous social circles. Indeed, the clustering of wealthy people together has a demonstrably negative affect on their likelihood to give to the less fortunate, for instance. In fact, a study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that

Wealthy people who lived in homogeneously affluent areas—areas where more than 40 percent of households earned at least $200,000 a year—were less generous than comparably wealthy people who lived in more socioeconomically diverse surroundings. It seems that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.”


Empathy requires mental downtime

Cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist Daniel Levitin, in his book, ‘The Organised Mind’, talks about two modes of our brains – central executive mode, and mind-wandering mode. They are largely what they sound like.

Levitin describes the central executive mode as “the state you’re in when you’re intensely focused on a task such as doing your taxes, writing a report, or navigating through an unfamiliar city.” It is the “stay-on-task mode”. By contrast, he describes mind-wandering mode as “a resting brain state, when your brain is not engaged in a purposeful task, when you’re sitting on a sandy beach or relaxing in your easy chair with a single malt Scotch, and your mind wanders fluidly from topic to topic. It’s not just that you can’t hold on to any one thought from the rolling stream, it’s that no single thought is demanding a response.”

He explains that “These two brain states form a kind of yin-yang: When one is active, the other is not.” Levitin then goes on to say that “In the mind-wandering mode, our thoughts are mostly directed inward to our goals, desires, feelings, plans, and also our relationship with other people—the mind-wandering mode is active when people are feeling empathy toward one another.”

In other words, we are much more likely to feel and demonstrate empathy when our brains – and our schedules – have room to breathe, and are not running from task to task, living in central executive mode.


2 – How can we nurture empathy?

Listen well

One of the best things we can do to nurture our own empathy muscles is to pay attention to people and take what they are saying seriously, with a commitment to try to understand what they are thinking and feeling.

Henry Cloud in ‘Integrity‘ outlines a simple framework for thinking about what it means to listen well –

“They talk →you experience them →you share what you have heard and experienced about their experience →then they experience you as having heard them.

They then know you are ‘with them.'”

In Cloud’s words, “…if we cannot communicate our listening in a way that lets the other person know we have truly understood, empathy has not occurred. There is no connection… True listening and understanding occurs only when the other person understands that you understand.”


Fight the echo chamber

While we now have access to greater diversity of opinions and perspectives than ever before, through the power of digital connectedness, the irony is that online algorithms often end up serving us up information that confirms our own preferences and beliefs. This creates a powerful and dangerous echo chamber for us – we think we are getting access to a world of opinions, when in reality we are simply amplifying those that align with our own.

Push back against homogeneity in your world, whether in the physical people you are exposed to, or the online perspectives you engage with.


Read literary fiction

Research by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano shows that reading literacy fiction, which describes to the reader the inner world of characters – their thinking and emotions – improves empathy, making people more effective in discerning the mental states and emotions of others.

Talking about these results in ‘The Organised Mind‘, Levitin describes the findings of the research that –

“people who read literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction or non-fiction) were better able to detect another person’s emotions, and the theory proposed was that literary fiction engages the reader in a process of decoding the characters’ thoughts and motives in a way that popular fiction and nonfiction, being less complex, do not.”


Prioritise the less powerful

In ‘Discontent and its Civilisations‘, Mohsin Hamid states that –

“A country should be judged by how it treats its minorities. To the extent it protects them, it stands for the ennobling values of empathy and compassion, for justice rooted, not in might, but in human equality, and for civilisation instead of savagery.”

Every time we prioritise the less powerful, in whatever way that appears within our spheres of life, we choose empathy over the path of least resistance. The systems and norms of life are always contoured in such a way that it is easiest to prefer the already powerful. It takes a conscious effort of empathy to fight the tide, examine the blind spots, and centre the marginalised.



Finally, if we wish to nurture empathy, we need to be able to stop.

Daniel Gilbert and Patrick Malone in their research on correspondence bias have demonstrated that information overload can cause empathy to decline. When the cognitive load – the amount of spinning plates and pieces of information we have in our head at once –  is too high, we are more likely, they found, to misattribute and misunderstand the motives and behaviours of others. We don’t have the margin to process the relevant, fragile or subtle information that would help us have a more nuanced and empathetic assessment of what is really going on.

Margin also allows us the space and time for our processing skills to thoroughly experience the complexity of situations in order to fully enter into empathy. In his ground-breaking 2010 book, ‘The Shallows’, Nicholas Carr quotes researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, as she explains the toll the information age can take on our ability to empathise –

“For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection. If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.”


3 – Why does empathy matter?

Anne Manne makes the thought-provoking statement that “With empathy, cruelty is impossible.” Certainly, as she demonstrates through a variety of research in ‘The Life of I’, “refusing to extend empathy and common humanity to those who are different from oneself…underpins racism, sexism and homophobia”.

Certainly it is also important for globally effective leadership, as more and more of us work across borders and cultures, as Ken Cochrum details in ‘Close: Leading well across distance and culture’.

We all know, too, how much empathy matters in relationships, whether in work, friendship or romance. When we feel known and understood, and are committed to do the same for others, trust and emotional connection naturally increase.

Whether it’s the fabric of a marriage, a team or a society, it will be better with empathy.

Ultimately, empathy is good because it is morally good, whether or not it is useful. It also happens, by the way, to be very useful in crafting a meaningful life.