on 13 February 2014
I know it is absurdly early in the year to be choosing the top book of the year, but here goes. I recommend Empathy by Roman Krznaric for both the quality of the content and its importance.
Empathy, he tells us, is ‘the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.’
Krznaric rejects the self-interested individualism that has been promoted for over 300 years by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins. Instead he draws on the latest understanding of psychology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience to demonstrate that we are naturally empathetic.
He argues that we need to ‘switch on our empathetic brains’ if many of the world’s ills are to be solved.
We need to overcome barriers such as prejudice, authority, distance and denial if we are to boost our empathy skills, he says.
He utilises some pretty impressive case studies to argue that it is possible; from Oskar Schindler to Beecher Stowe - author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin - to Gandhi and Mandela. All people who without doubt developed very strong empathetic skills.
Krznaric identifies numerous tools to deploy to increase empathy: babies in classrooms; joining a choir; considering the full potential lifecycle of the jumper you are wearing; chatting to strangers; and immersing yourself in the role of somebody else for a period as George Orwell did in Down and Out in Paris and London.
Reading books, looking at photographs and watching films can also help build empathy – and he provides a recommended list, and asks you to add to it.
The critical role increased empathy has played in social revolutions is highlighted. Krznaric highlights how wartime evacuees exposed provincial households to the appalling poverty in the cities via the state of its children. And how ‘empathy campaigns’ - often spearheaded by Quakers - took on slavery, prison reform, women’s rights and more.
The 21st century needs to see significant boosts in empathy, says Krznaric - empathy with the victims of flooding, including in far-away countries; empathy with future generations to spur action on cutting carbon pollution; and even developing a kind of empathy for the natural world.
Doing so will require policy changes, such as the teaching of empathy skills to children, as well as facilitating change by creating spaces, opportunities and challenges for adults to switch-on or develop their empathy skills.
I would agree with Krznaric that without increased empathy the chances of solving the challenges of the 21st century are going to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Roman Krznaric has done us all a great favour by writing Empathy. It is a well researched, thoroughly enjoyable and an important read.
on 13 February 2014
This is a kind of travel book for the soul, as well as an incitement to social revolution. It takes you inside the minds and hearts of other people - and that's the most daring and transformative place any of us can go. I read the book as preparation for teaching a course about radical social leadership, and the ideas here, backed up by first rate research, are urgent, expansive, empowering and ethical.
on 13 February 2014
Roman Krznaric's style is light, often wry and humorous, and also extremely learned. It weaves together insights from many current thinkers on empathy (for example, Brene Brown, Frans de Waal) and their work, with a more historical analysis and a lot of ideas about how to develop personal commitment to social change. The last chapter, on creating new and positive directions in how we deal with climate change, is a brilliant call to action, but also, a genuine handbook to creating a more stimulating and engaged life, reaching out and understanding other people better, signposting the reader to new on-line communities, a "menu" of empathy questions to discuss with others. See empathylibrary.com for a taster of the book, and more ideas from Roman Krznaric.
on 20 March 2014
Just loved this book, it delves into how the brain works, whether women are more empathic than men in relation to responding to another persons feelings and emotions. There have been different kinds of research that have dissected the empathic brain to understand how it works. The book explores the concept of empathy, realising empathic potential and empathic journeys, you have to try this by switching onto your empathic brain.
on 13 February 2014
The premise of 'Empathy' is interesting and has been the subject of much debate: the notion that empathy has a more muscular role in social justice, social change, collective action than perhaps it has been properly credited with. I should just say that I'd read a few of the 'anti-empathy' criticisms before picking up the book, and so approached it somewhat sceptically. However it quickly became apparent to me, just a few pages in, that the case being made for empathy had been painfully misrepresented in some quarters. There's nothing anti-rational or fluffy or navel gazing about promoting empathy education if you actually care about some of earth's most intractable problems and have studied the history of social change with any kind of seriousness. Under Krznaric's easy engaging writing style, there is a coolly argued case being made for empathy as a social force which can be harnessed in various ways for the public good. For myself, though, the book's real value was in the case studies of those whom Krznaric calls 'Empathic adventurers': individuals throughout history who have been able to step outside of the social norms of a particularly rigid group, look at it from the less dominant group's point of view and then come back to tell the tale. Another person might call these adventurers 'Radicals', and I'm sure many did. But it seemed obvious to these groundbreaking individuals that their society would only take collective action over others suffering when they could actually feel for these 'Others'. When they no longer seemed like 'Others' at all. And that without empathy in the equation, nothing would change.
This is a pacey, engaging read. Well argued, well written.
on 14 February 2014
Roman Krznaric offers an appealing celebration of empathy as an alternative to the increasingly egocentric, insular, atomised human experience of modernity. We are wired for empathy. His moving personal and social vignettes showcase empathy as a more attractive fulfilling way to live together in human society. There’s lots of interesting and also much morally challenging material here on subjects like prejudice, obedience to authority, distance from others, and denial of reality. His strong thesis is that empathy has reduced cruelty and torture, and can reduce inequality, injustice, conflict, and even climate change.
He doesn’t however tackle the difficulties with his thesis. Claims of ‘mirror neurons’ are unconvincing. We may just as easily react to someone else’s good or bad treatment by imagining it directly on ourselves, rather than via ‘mirror neurons’ in each person’s brain. Empathy may be reverse engineered selfishness. People’s capacity for empathy is not as infinite as Krznaric suggests or requires. Many people can’t find empathy for their own family or their immediate neighbours, never mind for the total world population. He doesn’t explore the boundary between empathy, and behaviour which is intrusive or patronising. Do we want to ‘step into other people’s lives’, and do other people want their lives stepped into? His social engineering proposals for an empathy revolution are too manipulative.
Technology increasingly makes individualism possible as lifestyle. This is unlikely to change or reverse, and resistance looks futile. Empathy may be nice, but it’s not necessary. It therefore has to make a very strong case for itself. Self is a powerful force. As Krznaric points out, other orientation is a rare capability. His own web site is egocentric and doesn’t offer any scope for engagement, as is the case with most other contemporary philosophers. A forum would be more consistent with the theme of empathy than a blog. Krznaric has told me what he thinks, but, contrary to his thesis, he hasn’t offered any channel to find out what I think.
There is a wider philosophical problem. We are urged to transfer concern from our own self to other people’s self, but it is still self which benefits. Merely swapping self interest (I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine) is a zero sum game. Having discovered someone else has a different interest or opinion to mine doesn’t necessarily resolve the dilemma. The question as to why, and how far, we should be more involved with others, more concerned with others, cannot be determined, just as justice itself cannot be absolutely defined . It is as arbitrary as any other moral imperative in an atheist interpretation. This however doesn’t prevent us choosing, in a totally arbitrary way, to prefer an empathetic society. I happen to largely agree with Roman Krznaric, but I think the debate needs to be deeper and wider.
on 18 January 2016
Very eclectic and insightful book. I particularly appreciated the author's balanced approach to the neural mechanisms underlying empathy. For us all to be more empathetic is certainly a worthwhile yet very challenging goal. This book does offer some guidance as to how to achieve it.
on 4 October 2014
Great book, exactly what I needed when the most important friend suggested that in some scenario's I lacked empathy. Reading this book has revolutionised me, changed my perspective and made me a better person. I can now understand my challenges over the past 18 months through separation and for the right reasons understand things from all perspectives. This is the first book I've finished in many years a good value perspective read.
on 21 March 2014
Krznaric divides empathic skills into six categories and hopes that we will try to DO at least one of them. I have tried empathising with the manager who recently sacked me: I would rate my success as about 20%. This book is not just an interesting read with lots of examples and mellifluously written; it also challenges the reader to develop empathy skills. This may be harder than it sounds.
on 20 December 2014
The premise for this book is nothing new, however, the timing and relevance of its message is a refreshing escape from our marketing and narcisstic driven culture. The read does come across, though, as a futuroligists' manifesto in blue sky thinking, as many of the points raised are humanely idealistic, but this should not put off being inspired to make the change as many noteworthy empathists throughout history have done, and who are discussed at some length: Mandela, Che Guevara, Ghandhi, Oscar Schindler, Patricia Moore, George Orwell and Harriet Beecher Stowe - and Adam Smith who wrote 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments''.
Roman Krznaric presents a handbook for revolution that is so extraordinarily counter to society's reinterpretation of Western historical wisdom that it is worth quoting the author quoting Goethe (p203): "[the] cabal of priests..are trying to seduce man from activity in the outside world. Man only knows himself insofar as he knows the world."
It would appear that our Socratic quest for introspection has removed man from the world of empathetic understanding and instead a new word is coined that has a far more noble endeavour of peace-making and healing that challenge the theocracies and economic philosophies of the past, even it might be said many religions, and chimes with the current zietgeist for media connection making: outrospection!
However, a cautionary note from the author. The internet encourages the voice of 'homo self-centricus' and a state of 'continuous partial attention' i.e. large quantities of shallow information, short attention spans and weak superficial connections that indulge the animal ego with "standardised presences backed by gigantic investments that pre-fit into multiple choice identities...flattening out what is unusual and making it easier to discover commonalities, but impoverishing the quality of complexity".
There is, it seems, a long way to go to immerse oneself in really depthful community conversations that could be facilitated by emerging digital forms, since at present the message is dominated by online default e-fit personalities egosurfing, narcissurfing or vanity autogoogling, prone to deception and self-aggrandisement and the 'online disinhibition effect' (trolling). Facebook is teaching an entire generation to promote their personalities in an age where empathy marketing has become a pernicious tool.
A plethora of historical Western books on human culture have been written about how our animal brain thrives in competitive and self-interested environents stemming from Hobbes's "nasty, brutish and short lives", Adam Smith's 'invisible hand', Darwin's struggle for existence and Freud's aggressively driven discontents, but Krznaric argues that such thinking has been foregrounded at the expense of cooperation. 'Homo socioempathicus' has been out-gunned by homo self-centricus and it wasn't until the birth of psychology and primatology thst investigations into cognitive (perspective-taking) and affective (shared emotional response) empathy (einfühlung - feeling into) discovered biological mimicry (Spitz, Piaget, Bowlby, Kropotkin) as the basis of our human capacity for empathy: in the field of neuroscience, for example, 'mirror neurons' (1990) fire up when we see somebody else going through the same experience as ourselves.
Knowing that our brains are wired for both individualism and empathy, Krznaric's mission is to promote the latter as a cultural force by shifting what the cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls our mental frame towards social causes and community projects, i.e. humanising the Other. In overcoming the barriers of prejudice, obedience, distance and denial, 6 habits of highly empathetic people are described, of which Habits 1 and 2 are the preliminaries of how to switch on the empathy function.
For Habit 3 Krznaric proposes that we seek experiential adventures in 'DIY immersion'; this is very much the underpinning of the book's revolutionary intention: how do we find the time to acheive the empathetic delights of a method actor or an undercover social reformer such as Beatrice Webb, John Howard Griffen and Günther Wallraff or the 'wealth swappers' Tushar Vashist and Matthew Cherian? Can we copy Andreas Heinecke's concept of 'sense swapping'? Travelling into other social worlds shakes us out of the narrowness of our home grown worldview and erodes our empathy deficit and to this end Krznaric would love to see an Empathy Travel Agency on every High St and in every shopping mall: "that assesses your empathetic needs and desires, and offers you a tailor-made experiential package..called Empathy Escapes - Unpack Your Personal Baggage!"
Habit 4 practices the craft (rather than a following of a checklist of techniques) of conversation which is what highly empathetic people tend to do through their curiosity about strangers, radical listening, taking off their mask, developing a concern for others, as well as the courage to experiment with creative openings. It is suggested a seventh element of self love derived from the Greek word 'philautiam' is cultivated as opposed to its negative meaning of narcissism: "All friendly feelings for others are an extension of man's feelings for himself (Aristotle)".
Habit 5 uses armchair empathy which is at the heart of storytelling in the arts, such as the social documentary photography of Lewis Hine that exposed child labour in early 20th century United States, or seeking advice from a professional bibliotherapist who works in an empathy library and advises you about your reading habits based on your personal circumstances. Seminal empathy apps are also discussed, for example 'Chatroulette' and 'Ambient' or video games such as 'That Dragon, Cancer and Peacemaker'. The last chapter of the book signs off with a very interesting innovation in the establishment of Empathy Museums that propose for example an experiential adventure space consisting of a library of humans, story telling hubs, dramatic role plays, extreme working condition rooms, harsh climates, a Mr Ben type wardrobe shop and Fair Trade interactive cafe!
Habit 6, inspiring a revolution, is a somewhat grand term described in three cultural waves starting with the rise of 18th century humanitarianism - a significant proportion established by the Quakers; the expansion of rights after WW2; and the current age of neuroscience where empathy skills are taught in schools, for example UK SEAL. Peace building and mediation projects that aim to shrink the empathy gap of space and time are also discussed which are having a localised transformative effect in world conflict areas. Finally, the hidden capacity for bioempathy with animals, e.g hedgehogs, and the more speculative notion of biophilia with nature is explored.
As an apt summary of this enlightening read the golden rule of 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is symptomatic of the modern age and neatly sums up why many of the world religions may be missing the point. This rule needs to be complemented by the platinum rule which "resists the temptation of projecting our own experiences and views onto others" and instead is 'do unto others as they would have you do unto them' i.e. by removing the ethnocentric 'just like me' factor - but can this actually be acheived in practice as noble as it sounds?
To gain such a level of mastery of one's own awareness in seizing the difference between the two rules in relation to how to treat Others will, I fear, be nothing short of a true undertaking especially as it requires the majority of any community to be following the same principle if the rule is to be sustainable!