You cannot cruise control and empathize
Updated: May 16, 2019
I get very excited when I see a real life application of something that I knew in theory. For example, I still remember back in middle school, when my science teacher taught us that water and oil do not mix, I could not wait to go home and try it for myself. At the expense of my mom’s cooking oil, I was amazed at the results as I kept mixing, stirring and shaking in different containers a combination of oil and water. The molecules just would not blend; my instructor knew what he was talking about I thought to myself.
Unless one pursues a career as a lab or a social scientist, these types of discoveries become rare as one grows older. Fortunately, a couple of weeks ago, I had one of those experiences as I was flying to Boston, Massachusetts. I was seating at a row near the back of the plane. The isle seat, gave me great visibility across both isles. Halfway through the flight, a baby began crying in the back of the plane. It was intermittent. At each episode, a young man, in his mid-twenties, seated a few rows in front of me across the isle, would turn back and stare at the mom and the baby. Every time he turned, I empathized with this woman who was trying to calm her son down. As a father of an eight-months old myself, I began to be frustrated with this passenger who appeared judgmental and insensitive towards this woman. I thought to myself, “He has no idea what it is like to be traveling with an infant “. I considered talking to him and saying something like “She is trying to calm him down, leave her alone”.
A few minutes later, the baby finally stopped and I dozed off for thirty minutes. When I woke up, great was my surprise when I saw the same young man walking the isle with the baby who was crying earlier. He was the father. You can imagine how I felt. In disbelief, I began reflecting on what had just happened. I had just wrongfully judged this person and labelled him “judgmental and insensitive”, because I had misread and misinterpreted the situation.
What went wrong with my interpretation?
In my work on empathy I had come across Hoffman (1987)’s work in which he stated that a lower level of empathy can be experienced by direct association. This is a technical term that refers to a cognitive process through which a person makes a connection between a set of current events and past experiences that are similar. As a result, the person begins experiencing the same emotions as in the past. In my case, I felt empathy for the mother at the expense of the young man. As I kept reflecting on what has influenced my cognitive process and emotional response, I realized that a few months before this event, i was on a plane ride and witnessed a similar story. The difference then was that, two men in their early twenties, were giving negative looks to a couple who was seating in the back of the plane with a crying baby.
My brain had automatically defaulted to my past experience as the interpretative lens for the scenario at hand. The father was associated with the two insensitive young men and the woman with the struggling couple. The way the brain makes connections between events has been argued to stem from the human need to identify safety from danger for the sake of survival. The problem however, is that this mechanism applies old models to new situations which do not fit. I was dead wrong. This man was not insensitive. In the contrary he was a caring and loving father and husband.
The moral of the story
My realization after this experience was the confirmation that empathy is truly driven by affect and cognition. As long as a person defaults to old mental models shaped by past experiences, the outcomes are bound to be shortsighted and inaccurate. One must engage in perspective taking (analysis of all possible angles) in order to effectively empathize; because no two situations, no two stories nor two human beings are ever the same.