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Which Type of Empathy Leads to Action?


I’ve been planning to write a post for a while now about empathy and its role in the work we do—telling stories on behalf of organizations in order to gain attention, shift a perspective, move a cause forward.

This has been a difficult week in the news, particularly as it relates to new United States immigration policies [update: possible movement on this issue] that separate families at the border, a move aimed at deterring illegal immigration. Pro Publica released a secret recording (below) of children—some as young as six-years-old—sobbing after being separated from their parents, all while being mocked by a border patrol official. It’s heartbreaking, it’s maddening. I have a five-year-old and a nine-year-old and the thought of them in a similar situation, so helpless and scared, made me feel physically sick. I could barely listen to the audio.

This got me thinking about how we would tell this story. What could we say or show that would move someone to shift their position on an issue as big as immigration? Often, when we’re telling a difficult story we want to give all the details. We want our audience to get as close to the real thing as possible. We want to be specific. I believe this so much that I wrote an earlier post about it, recounting takeaways from Malcom Gladwell where he argues quite successfully that the reason country music makes people cry is because “it’s not afraid to get specific.” I love being specific and what it can do to create understanding.

But is this the right kind of empathy to employ for everyone?

The immigration debate is very charged and complicated. A large segment of the country feels left behind in our global economy. They’ve seen their jobs outsourced, their cities and towns gutted, and their savings pillaged due to rigged financial systems. Worst of all, they don’t feel like anyone is listening. And if you aren’t feeling heard, will the specific kind of empathy I describe above help to change your mind?

Here’s another type of empathy. A Radio Lab episode from back in January recounts stories of heroes—the kind where a stranger risks his or her life in order to save another person—and examines what made them act. On the program, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky points out that data shows people don’t reason their way to a decision. They aren’t thinking. They aren’t reasoning. They aren’t feeling empathy. They do the heroic thing when it’s implicit, when it’s automatic. Sapolsky’s research suggests it’s not always about moral reasoning or vast empathy. Pain is painful and if it’s painful enough, it can be too upsetting. If you want people to act, you need the type of empathy that allows for some emotional detachment.

And of course, there is still this video. And families being ripped apart. The challenge in front of us as marketers, strategists, writers and designers, is to deeply understand our audience and then frame the story—use the right kind of empathy—to connect with them. It’s easy to say but difficult to do.

Let’s keep trying.