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a radical experiment in empathy
March 5, 2012 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Sam Richards: A Radical Experiment In Empathy (button underneath the video makes "interactive transcript" available, at link)

"Now, you might ask, "Okay, Sam, so why do you do this sort of thing? Why would you use this example of all examples?" And I say, because ... because. You're allowed to hate these people. You're allowed to just hate them with every fiber of your being. And if I can get you to step into their shoes and walk an inch, one tiny inch, then imagine the kind of sociological analysis that you can do in all other aspects of your life. You can walk a mile when it comes to understanding why that person's driving 40 miles per hour in the passing lane, or your teenage son, or your neighbor who annoys you by cutting his lawn on Sunday mornings. Whatever it is, you can go so far. And this is what I tell my students: step outside of your tiny, little world. Step inside of the tiny, little world of somebody else. And then do it again and do it again and do it again. And suddenly all these tiny, little worlds, they come together in this complex web. And they build a big, complex world. And suddenly, without realizing it, you're seeing the world differently. Everything has changed. Everything in your life has changed. And that's, of course, what this is about."
posted by flex (33 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was an interesting and effective exercise. Having a sense of empathy is like having a sense of humor - everyone thinks they've got a good one.

The real challenge is to continue to question and challenge the subjects of your empathy. For instance, I think that it was probably pretty easy for Sam Richards to empathize with the people in his examples.
posted by BobbyVan at 7:10 AM on March 5, 2012


I want more empathy exercises like this! More! Links!
posted by zeek321 at 7:34 AM on March 5, 2012


Some of the comments completely miss the point of the exercise. "But...but...MUSLIMS!"
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:44 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Empathy is simply not putting yourself in someone else's shoes, trying to see things as "they" do, because that's a joke.

That homeless guy I walk past every morning. I can imagine myself being hungry and cold, because I've been hungry and cold, but that's about as far as it gets.

The thing is that I can see myself in such a situation only to the extent that it is me in that situation and that's where the "empathy" illusion falls apart. I simply cannot imagine being another person in that situation, thinking as another person, because I am not and cannot be someone I am not.

I can't imagine myself having a mental illness, I can't imagine myself tolerating living rough when the object isn't camping, I can't imagine desperation and despair because I have no relationship with these things. I would only be fooling myself.

I once spent two weeks drunk. (Just to see if I could do it. I could and I did and it wasn't as much fun as I thought.) Despite that effort, I can't imagine spending months or years like that. Really being addicted to alcohol. As hard and as often as I have tried, I can't empathize with an alcoholic. Maybe a tiny, tiny, little bit, but that's all and that's not nearly enough.

This clown thinks he knows how someone in the Arab world thinks and feels because he tries to see things from their point of view. LOL skippy. You know how YOU would feel, but you don't have more than the first clue as to how those people actually feel and think. And it's more than a bit arrogant to conduct a thought experiment and think you'd done it.

I like to think (along with my tremendous sense of humor) I can have sympathy for other people, but empathy. Forget it. Moreover, I do not think I need to have empathy with someone to feel compassion for someone.
posted by three blind mice at 7:45 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


tbm: who says it's about 'compassion' necessarily? If we want to combat terrorists effectively, knowing motivations helps, 'know thine enemy,' right?
posted by jonmc at 8:01 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tbm, replace the word empathy with the phrase theory of mind, if that makes it better for you.
posted by jsturgill at 8:16 AM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


You know how YOU would feel, but you don't have more than the first clue as to how those people actually feel and think.

Eh, you think Iraqis are some kind of alien species whose brain works completely differently, so I can't have "the first clue" how they think? That's pretty daft.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:18 AM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


er, "more than the first clue"...
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:19 AM on March 5, 2012


Good authors who know characterization do empathy and foreign mindsets all the time. Getting inside someone else's head is a skill you can learn like any other. And we do it better than any other species. Our brains are built to emulate foreign thought patterns. It's what makes us such lethal hunters despite being slow, flat footed, and armed with nothing more than sharpened rocks and pointy sticks.
posted by clarknova at 8:51 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with everything he said, but I feel like the audience who needs this exercise most would have so many pre-existing assumptions and prejudices and simply see this as a liberal ruse. I think to make his point effectively, he should have taken a more oblique approach.
posted by PigAlien at 8:58 AM on March 5, 2012


I agree with everything he said, but I feel like the audience who needs this exercise most would have so many pre-existing assumptions and prejudices and simply see this as a liberal ruse.

Well, you know what they say...empathy has a well-known liberal bias.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:03 AM on March 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Eh, you think Iraqis are some kind of alien species whose brain works completely differently, so I can't have "the first clue" how they think? That's pretty daft.

I think we're constantly over-estimating and under-estimating how different people are, and the only way to get a sense of which side of the horse you're currently leaning towards is to spend lots of time talking with (but especially, listening to) someone you're trying to better understand.

In general, I'd guess this sort of thought experiment, led by someone who is not actually one of the people you're trying to better understand, is not very helpful. It probably, by random chance, catches some people who were about to fall of the horse in one direction or the other and makes them reconsider.
posted by straight at 9:04 AM on March 5, 2012


I could already empathize with Iraqi insurgents, but people driving 40mph in the passing lane? Guantanamo baby, Guantanamo. Also, I have trouble empathizing with people who can't put the toilet paper on the right way and pedophiles.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't imagine myself having a mental illness, I can't imagine myself tolerating living rough when the object isn't camping, I can't imagine desperation and despair because I have no relationship with these things. I would only be fooling myself.

If you assume that your own limitations are in fact universal human limitations, then you're putting yourself in other people's shoes after all, or them in yours, which amounts to the same thing.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:01 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


How many MeFites have never tried to empathize with the Iraquis? If I am correctly putting myself in the place of my fellow MeFites, I'd say most of us have tried this--even 3 blind mice.
How many TED talk attendees have never thought about how the Iraquis see us? I imagine many of them have empathized with the Iraquis and, if I am correctly empathizing with them, they feel good about themselves for it and are glad that other people who need to hear this message are getting it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:11 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Iraqi, dude. Ditch the 'u.' 'Iraqui' sounds like a dyslexic Indian tribe.
posted by jonmc at 10:12 AM on March 5, 2012


I think we're constantly over-estimating and under-estimating how different people are, and the only way to get a sense of which side of the horse you're currently leaning towards is to spend lots of time talking with (but especially, listening to) someone you're trying to better understand.

This presumes that you're trying to understand someone. You've got to take the first step first, though, which is to believe that there's something to understand. That is, "They are like me. They have loves, hates, goals, and fears. I can understand them if I try." If you look at a lot of the rhetoric around war, it involves active dehumanization, because in war you need to convince people that "those people are crazy. Don't try to understand them." This is not academic. This occurs everyday. Dehumanization, which attempts to rule out the possibility of empathy, is the main psychological weapon that the promotors of war use (and of course apathy).

In his talk, he was talking about making that first baby step. Truly understanding other people does indeed require listening, but to understand that there is something to understand , perhaps through a talks like this one, is required first.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:20 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


A perfect illustration of what I was talking about, Ph.D.

People who would say, "those people are crazy. Don't try to understand them," about Iraqi insurgents are some kind of alien species whose brain works completely differently, so I don't have the first clue how they think.

It honestly didn't even occur to me that such people exist when I wrote my comment. I suppose they have loves, hates, goals, and fears and I might be able to understand them if I try.
posted by straight at 10:42 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


This clown thinks he knows how someone in the Arab world thinks and feels because he tries to see things from their point of view. LOL skippy. You know how YOU would feel, but you don't have more than the first clue as to how those people actually feel and think. And it's more than a bit arrogant to conduct a thought experiment and think you'd done it.

Just out of curiosity, are you saying empathy doesn't exist, or that what the speaker is talking about isn't full empathy? There's definitely a difference between doing the legwork of looking at things from another's perspective and thinking you know as much as they do about their experience. The guy giving this talk is clearly discussing the first, not claiming the second. Thought experiments are only part of the exercise of empathy, and actually listening to people is another big part of it.

The scene from Clueless is a good comedic example: the students from a rich high school are doing a donation drive for the homeless, and one brings a bunch of ski equipment. Because, after all, the homeless need exercise, too! It's an example of the mechanisms of empathy lacking the information that comes with actually listening to the person being empathized with. A lot of "Let's give third-world kids laptops with integrated development environments!" proposals feel like they suffer from some of the same issues.

At the same time, even those clueless but well-meaning impulses, the ones that start with imagining but lack sufficient information to accurately capture the real needs of the person being imagined, are not worthless. They're a starting point, and one that people still need to work at.
posted by verb at 11:10 AM on March 5, 2012


It honestly didn't even occur to me that such people exist when I wrote my comment.

Read the third comment on the TED talk's page:

'"If Sam was truly interested in empathy, he would have begun his talk with some form of the following: "Since the moment you were born, you were taught that the Koran is the perfect, unchallengeable word of the creator of the universe..."'

This is clearly an attempt to frame Muslims as all crazy religious automatons. Rather than motivated by love for family or country, or oppression, this commenter is arguing they should be primarily viewed as motivated by raw religious belief, which the commenter no doubt believes is completely irrational. It only took three comments for someone to dehumanize 1.5 billion Muslims by saying: "it is impossible to understand the mind of a Muslim without first acknowledging how profoundly their religion shapes their worldview."

So "mind of a Muslim" can only be understood with reference to a 1400-year-old religion the poster can only describe by talking about how it mandates killing. This is the opposite of empathy, and it only took three comments to get there.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:11 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


We are closing in on the day when it will be financially viable to buy up the rights to Red Dawn and digitally alter it, mapping in Iraqi flags over all depictions of the Stars and Stripes...
posted by fredludd at 12:14 PM on March 5, 2012


Wow, if this is considered a "radical" experiment in empathy, we're much further gone than I thought (and I wrote a book about the threat to empathy in the U.S.). This is Empathy 101 guys!!!

I guess if you don't do very much perspective-taking at all, this would seem radical, but to most people who have thought about the situation for more than 10 minutes, it's not hard to imagine that the other side has a different POV and has real reasons they might be unhappy with us.

And yes, of course, any truly empathetic perspective recognizes that empathy is not complete, that we really don't know what it's like in someone else's head, particularly if they have experiences that are radically different from our own. To counter this, they do something called listening to other people and asking questions when they don't understand.

It's very sad if this is radical.
posted by Maias at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


three blind mice: "The thing is that I can see myself in such a situation only to the extent that it is me in that situation and that's where the "empathy" illusion falls apart. I simply cannot imagine being another person in that situation, thinking as another person, because I am not and cannot be someone I am not."


Empathy isn't thinking as another person does, it's feeling as they do.

By and large the majority of people, all across the world, simply want the things implied by Maslow's hierarchy. People have their differences. Their thoughts can be shaped by their culture and environment in ways both subtle and gross.

Their feelings though, are the same as you and I feel. Love is love. Fear is fear. Sadness is sadness. This remains true no matter the language, culture, or environment because feelings come from the body, not the mind.

Everyone's got a story, I always say. Meaning that there's always a reason the people you meet are behaving the way they are. Sometimes it's easy to see. Other times it's buried so deep the person themselves may not be conscious of it. There's always a reason though, and quite often it has to do with how the way they feel influences the way they see and interact with the world.

In this case, it's not difficult for me to imagine how I'd feel in similar circumstances. I even understand where the presenter is coming from vis-à-vis American militarism and economic hegemony over the last eighty years. However, I'm not sure I agree with his implied conclusion.



Despite typical Internet commentators to the contrary, I don't think the problem with Iraq in particular, and MENA and South Asia in general, is a lack of empathy among Americans with the suffering and fear caused by war, occupation, and internal ethnic and religious strife. It is instead the fact that the long-term strategic goals of the people actually making these decisions do not and cannot take any such feelings into account.

In some senses the die was cast when the Allies didn't demobilize after WWII because of the perceived threat to each side from the other. Powering all those war machines and the trucks that service them requires oil. When Hubbert presented his research in 1956, we were coincidentally nearing peak Cold War paranoia. Thus, control of worldwide oil reserves by any means necessary became a long-term strategic goal.

No one really expected the events of 1989, or predicted the consequences. One thing it meant in the short-term is it gave the U.S. the perception of having a free hand for the first time in almost four decades. No one really predicted the consequences of this either.

Fast-forward to today and we're nearing the peak predicted by Hubbert in 1956. My intuition is that U.S. strategic goals have angled towards ensuring that the last war machines still operating are American and this in turn means ensuring that the last oil pumped from the ground winds up in America's stockpile. (Which makes "Drill, baby, drill" all the more insane, but that's for another time.)



It's true that no where in the strategic calculations of the men making these decisions are the feelings of Iraqis, Americans, or anyone else taken into account. Their sole objective is to ensure that America doesn't wind up with that most expensive of luxuries—a second best military. If there is a failing here it is with the civilian officials nominally in command not demonstrating any actual leadership when it comes to the military in decades.

I can't object to Mr. Richard's implication that framing the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as existential threats to Muslim Arabs is immoral, unwise, and counterproductive. I don't even object to his implication that too many Americans frame these wars internally that way. My disagreement lies with the implied conclusion that the defense spending of the U.S. outpacing the rest of the world combined is unwarranted and unnecessary.

There is a discussion to be had, which I would welcome, about how many divisions, fleets, and wings it will really take to sensibly protect the U.S. Such a discussion needs to be informed by a great many factors, both strategic and tactical. Perhaps this time the Pentagon will finally realize that the U.S. Army is unsuited for occupation duty, and thus it should be avoided. (Especially when the reconstruction is botched as in Iraq.)

It is unlikely that anyone in such a meeting will bring up empathy for the people in occupied territories. One hopes though that the realization that occupations are dirty work in general will help keep people from being put in that position in the first place.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:11 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


... the long-term strategic goals of the people actually making these decisions do not and cannot take any such feelings into account.

Inserting a "should not" into that sentence would be more patriotic.
posted by fredludd at 1:23 PM on March 5, 2012


My disagreement lies with the implied conclusion that the defense spending of the U.S. outpacing the rest of the world combined is unwarranted and unnecessary.

It sounds sort of like you are implying that militarism is the only possible outcome for the U.S. and perhaps the species, but I really don't want to construct any sort of a straw man out of what you said.

I think it is fair to say that you are saying that historical defense spending has been necessary. Why's that? I could see it as necessary to maintain a global hegemony, but as a non-U.S.A.er, I have no sympathy for U.S. desires for domination. As a Canadian, for that matter, I have no desire for Canadian domination in anything other than maple syrup and ice fishing.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 3:21 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it is fair to say that you are saying that historical defense spending has been necessary. Why's that? I could see it as necessary to maintain a global hegemony, but as a non-U.S.A.er, I have no sympathy for U.S. desires for domination. As a Canadian, for that matter, I have no desire for Canadian domination in anything other than maple syrup and ice fishing.

I don't want to put words in ob1quixote's mouth either, but I'm guessing that the implication was that given the way the early days of the cold war played out, countries that played the standing-army one-upsmanship game sort of became locked into it, and the need for oil was part of the game. The traditional response has also been that other countries didn't need to maintain ginormo armies because the US was shouldering that burden for them. That was always a mixed bag, however, and today it's unclear whether that results in a net stabilization or destabilization due to pushback.

I could be wrong, though -- ob1quixote can probably speak for him/herself. :-)
posted by verb at 3:35 PM on March 5, 2012


I can see that point of view. It does, however, neglect to consider the State Deptment's Grand Area they planned out in '43. That came about in the interests of hegemony. Hegemony is a choice, not a necessity.

It strikes me, however, that what is more important, and what I suspect Richards would like to see, is effort to make a world in which the species moves beyond desires for power over others or at the expense of others. One dick can spoil an entire party, however. People need a way of dealing with the dicks that doesn't involve explosives. And it occurs to me that those who are actually for power over/at the expense of others might claim that there is only one possible solution: Militarism. Not that I think that is Obi-Wan's position.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 4:07 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wrote this in parts over the course of several hours and realize now it doesn't hang together as well as I thought it did. My point about the empathy exercise kind of got lost in the shuffle. I was trying to say that 1) in the minds of the men who do it, there's no room for empathy in military planning and 2) people who can empathize with "the other guy" rarely get invited to military planning sessions.

Verb more-or-less has it. When none of the Allies demobilized and instead eyed each other suspiciously over the breastworks, the course of events for the next century was inexorably set in motion, although they didn't know that at the time. Once it became clear that oil was in fact a limited resource the only way to ensure continued power parity was to ensure access to the remaining reserves. I wasn't trying to make a value judgement on it because, no matter how I feel about it personally, it's the Realpolitick we have to live with now.

Dodecadermaldenticles, I would think the more common mindset of the men who plan for these kinds of things is the desire to ensure that "the other guy" doesn't somehow get the upper hand. Unfortunately this usually winds up being virtually indistinguishable from ruthlessness. I see your point about the Grand Area in the '40s. I'm curious about how much of that was a reaction to Pearl Harbor as much as anything else, analogous to the ideas that became the so-called "Global War on Terror" after 9/11.

As far as people of the world empathizing our way past Great Power politics, I'm afraid I'm pessimistic. Hell, the Attorney General annouced today that the official policy of the U.S. with regard to extra-judicial assassination of U.S. citizens is, "Trust us."

Right now, I'd settle for the U.S. going back to a doctrine of, "Don't start none if you don't want some." As opposed to our current, "What are you lookin' at?"
posted by ob1quixote at 4:58 PM on March 5, 2012


I agree. It's interesting you mention Pearl Harbor. It occurred because America's imperialistic moves in East Asia interfered with Japan's Daitou-a Kyoueiken, or Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was a more pleasant way for the Japanese to say "All Your Base Belong to Us."

I also understand your pessimism. But it is The Man calling the shots, not us. Until that changes, yeah, I'll be pessimistic, too.

As an aside on the War on Terror, I was immensely disappointed when they all too quickly stopped calling it The War Against Terror. I liked referring to it as the TWAT and truculent jingoists as TWAT supporters. Sigh.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 7:29 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you everybody for a very thoughtful thread.
posted by msali at 8:21 PM on March 5, 2012


Richards used a pretty safe and emotionally charged example.
I’m not American nor related to anyone in Iraq. I don’t know war nor anyone in the military. I don’t follow any religion. I don’t have a huge emotional investment in the issues presented. So yes, I can empathize.
I work with new immigrants who were born and raised in Iraq. On a daily basis, I hear to stories of their family life, the food and about their culture, values and beliefs. I have empathy for these co-workers because I can bridge an understanding from their experiences to mine. As well, my co-workers have developed empathy for my culture, beliefs and values. I doubt we will ever be violent towards each other because we have this empathy.
Did we start our relationship with empathy?. No!. In fact, there was a lot of tension and argument at the beginning of our working relationships – as each of us tried to defend our boundaries and the need to be right. However, through the conflict, (and a lot of maturity…) empathy grew.
I don’t think empathy can be taught. The older I get – the more I realize either you got it – or you don’t. But I don't give up hope, that someday via genetic research, the empathy gene can be cultivated. :-)
On a side note, interesting article on Obama and empathy.
posted by what's her name at 8:27 AM on March 6, 2012


a doctrine of, "Don't start none if you don't want some."

That is, I believe, the Jay Doctrine: "What I can't understand is, why you gotta come down here bringing all this ruckus. [...] My attitude is, don't start nothing, won't be nothing."

And, yeah, what Maias said. How is it radical to suppose that a guerrilla fighter sees themselves as resisting foreign aggression?
posted by stebulus at 6:36 PM on March 7, 2012


ob1quixote: "There is a discussion to be had, which I would welcome, about how many divisions, fleets, and wings it will really take to sensibly protect the U.S."

Apologies for replying to myself, but while browsing the web today I happened across a book due to be released on March 27th that explores some of the territory we've been discussing vis-à-vis American Hegemony: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow.
"One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792. Neither Jefferson nor the other Found­ers could ever have envisioned the modern national security state, with its tens of thousands of "privateers"; its bloated Department of Homeland Security; its rust­ing nuclear weapons, ill-maintained and difficult to dismantle; and its strange fascination with an unproven counterinsurgency doctrine.

Written with bracing wit and intelligence, Rachel Maddow's Drift argues that we've drifted away from America's original ideals and become a nation weirdly at peace with perpetual war, with all the financial and human costs that entails. To understand how we've arrived at such a dangerous place, Maddow takes us from the Vietnam War to today's war in Afghanistan, along the way exploring the disturbing rise of executive authority, the gradual outsourcing of our war-making capabilities to private companies, the plummeting percentage of American families whose children fight our constant wars for us, and even the changing fortunes of G.I. Joe. She offers up a fresh, unsparing appraisal of Reagan's radical presidency. Ultimately, she shows us just how much we stand to lose by allowing the priorities of the national security state to overpower our political discourse.

Sensible yet provocative, dead serious yet seri­ously funny, Drift will reinvigorate a "loud and jangly" political debate about how, when, and where to apply America's strength and power--and who gets to make those decisions.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:45 PM on March 15, 2012


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