Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get it
Author: Roman Krznaric
Why, in a technologically connected world, are we victims of empathy deficit, and plagued by an epidemic of narcissism (pages xvii-xviii)? Why are we oblivious of the consequences of empathic collapse such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide (page xix)? Why are we hostage to psychopaths, people Simon Baron-Cohen says have zero degrees of empathy (page xvi)? This book addresses these questions, stressing why empathy matters. It argues that we are living in a self-centered age of introspection, and need to advance to an empathic age of outrospection (page xxiii).
The author defines empathy as ‘…the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions’ (page x). He distinguishes empathy from sympathy and compassion, and argues that The Golden Rule, ‘do to others what you want them to do to you’, is not enough. Pushing the boundaries, he advocates ‘do unto others as they would have you do unto them’, the Platinum Rule (page 59). The book demonstrates how we can do this by adopting the six habits of highly empathic people. These behaviours, the book argues, confer many benefits such as healing relationships, deepening friendships, triggering creative thinking, and reducing prejudice (pages xv-xx).
The book analyses society’s attitude to empathy over the centuries, pointing out the influence, both positive and negative, of thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins. The author discussed the relationship of empathy to concepts such as Jean Piaget’s theory of mind (pages 9-10); Rene Spitz’s emotional development in infants (page 13); and Peter Kropotkin and Frans dear Waal’s empathy in lower species. We learn of the biological foundations of empathy such as oxytocin-mediated empathy and the brain’s mirror neuron system; here the author cites the works of Paul Zak and Giacomo Rizzolatti respectively (pages 21-26).
The book is replete with illustrative examples of people who have demonstrated the highest levels of empathy. These include Mahatma Gandhi (page xxi), Francis of Assisi (page 73), Beatrice Webb (page 75), George Orwell (page 76), John Howard Griffin (page 77), and Günter Wallraff (page 79). The author showed how Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s empathy-evoked book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘, influenced the fight against slavery (pages 56-57). Using these and other examples, the author makes the case that highly empathic people are engaged in ‘…a constant search for what they share with other people,…and actively attempt to understand what they don’t…’ (pages 56 and 60).
The book’s main message is that we can learn to be more empathetic. The author uses his vast experience and research in this field to propose many ways of attaining this. He refers to techniques such as compassion training, reframing the mind (pages 29- 32), imaginative character games (page 53), and ‘humanising the other’ (page 55). He shows how methods, such as empathic cooperation, help to trigger empathic conversions as was the case with Klu Klux Klan leader Claiborne Paul Ellis (page 94). Whilst these individual examples are commendable, the author makes the point that empathy is most effective when it is communal, when it is ‘…embedded as part of a community ethos’ (page 181).
The author is not oblivious to the challenges facing empathic progress, and he lists the major obstacles which are prejudice, stereotyping, authority, distance, the culture of denial, and the crisis of communication (pages 35, 103-105). He however argues that these obstacles are surmountable, advocating measures like rediscovering our childhood ‘insatiable curiosity’ about others (page 103-105), and ‘radical listening‘ to improve conversations (page 112-113). He says ‘…the act of empathising begins with looking someone in the eye, giving them a name, and recognising their individuality. It is about acknowledging their humanity in defiance of prejudices and stereotypes; it is about refusing to obey authorities who command us to denigrate them’ (page 51).
This book explores what empathy is all about, why it matters, and how to attain it. It is very detailed, addressing all facets of the subject. It is well-written and convincingly shows how lack of empathy underlies the numerous crises facing us individually and collectively. Whilst the author does not make specific reference to health care, it is clear that the issues he discusses are central to medical practice. The author’s assertions are generally incontrovertible apart, perhaps, from his controversial justification of those who use violence to correct injustices, for example Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara.
Empathy, a core value in medicine, is becoming a fast-disappearing virtue in clinical practice. This book does an excellent job of exploring this important subject, showing why it matters. The author compellingly raises the profile of this easily overlooked ideal, and shows how it may be attained. Empathy is important for healthcare, and I highly recommend this book to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Rider Books, London, 2014
Number of chapters: 6
Number of pages: 258
Star rating: 5 stars