I’ve been reading some thoughts by Jamil Zoki who is a Stanford psychologist – an expert on empathy.
He’s come to the conclusion that we should view empathy as a ‘motivated phenomenon’ – something we choose to turn on or off, depending on who we are, the circumstances we find ourselves in, and the personality type we have developed. That’s interesting because it chimes with what I’ve been reading about our ‘different selves’ which, evolutionary anthropologists argue, have evolved from our primitive origins. You can imagine a ‘self’ where it isn’t useful to have empathy (because you’re protecting the family from attack). Conversely, you can imagine a time when empathy is useful – in helping to care for and nurture the tribe. Group boundaries play an important part in empathy, apparently. Who’s in. Who’s out.
Now, if empathy is a motivated phenomenon it means that we can ‘switch it on’ in research, if we do our jobs well…
Jamil identifies three main types of empathy:
- experience sharing
- empathic concern
Experience sharing is akin to ‘feeling someone’s pain’ – they hit their thumb with a hammer, you wince.
Empathic concern, is behaviour driven by wanting to help others because you understand their experience.
My interest is in mentalising. Mentalising is thinking through the consequences of what it’s like to be…other people. Which makes it incredibly powerful (potentially) for research and idea generation. Walk in their shoes, now explain that experience…
We are repeatedly reminded by behavioural scientists that ‘people don’t know their own motivations for doing things’. If true, it makes the traditional research methods redundant – we can’t ask people to explain their own choices. BUT maybe… we can ask people to explain… other people’s behaviour.
Quite a while ago I ran a project looking at how people were choosing ready meals. I spent a lot of time in-store codifying the different behaviours I saw. Then I got a colleague to recreate the physical behaviours that I’d seen at the fixture. I took pictures of her ‘shopping’ in different styles. Then I showed the photos to the group of respondents and got them to explain her behaviour, what she was doing, and why she was doing what she was doing.
I found their responses really rich and detailed and plausible (eek, plausible doesn’t mean it was true), but I felt a lot of confidence that they had understood her behaviour – connecting how they really behaved with the actions they were observing.
I think I had inadvertently stumbled on ‘mentalising’ as a useful technique in research. Since then I’ve read an awful lot too about our social selves and how our brains are designed to tune into others – in relation to ourselves.
Is asking about others a better of way of getting insight into ourselves? Does empathy lie at the heart of why that might be so?