Saturday, June 16, 2012

Which wolf are you feeding? Or... Why Empathy Matters.

Empathy, or putting yourself in someone else's shoes, is often thought of as a value. Science is discovering that it is actually an inherent biological trait, and it appears to be a key attribute necessary for our evolution...  I'd suggest it's correlated with the evolution of any complex system. This has huge implications not just for us as we interact with each other in our daily work, but for the human race as a whole now that technology enables us to be connected instantly and on a scale unthinkable until recently.

Primatologist Frans de Waal believes empathy is a not a uniquely human trait. In "The Age of Empathy" he describes animals experiments, (primarily with monkeys and apes) showing varying types of altruistic and empathic behavior. The experiments showed the animals displaying awareness of each others needs and not always acting in their own self-interest.

In Mark Goulston's "Just Listen" he explores the scientific discovers that explain the biological side of this...

“(Italian Scientists) studying specific nerve cells in macaque monkeys’ prefrontal cortexes found that the cells fired when the monkeys threw a ball or ate a banana. But here’s the surprise: these same cells fired when the monkeys watched another monkey performing these acts. In other words, when Monkey #1 watched Monkey #2 toss a ball, the brain of the first monkey reacted just as if it had tossed the ball itself."

The cells have been nicknamed 'mirror neurons', because they allow mirroring another's state of mind. I like to think of them as 'empathy neurons', but in the end the biological details aren't as significant as the evolved behavior itself. How nature does it isn't all that interesting to me.

While empathy appears to be an intrinsic part of our makeup it is not immutable, rather it is fragile. As Dr. Thomas Tomasello's decribes in “Why We Cooperate" children are inherently altruistic until they are taught otherwise. They can unlearn it through societal and cultural examples or it can be nurtured. The balance between selfish and empathetic behavior can be nudged either direction. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes this metaphorically in his book Buddha's Brain “…a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: ‘In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.’”

Which wolf are we feeding? If empathetic behavior can be nurtured, is that in fact what our society, and specifically our business culture is doing? Economoist Jeremy Rifkin has written about this and describes how the last 50 years of management practice have been built on the idea that we are essentially driven primarily by self-interest and that people are inherently lazy and need to be cooerced to work (Douglas McGregor's theory x in The Human Side Enterprise).  If one takes the other view, that we are inherently cooperative as new scientific research demonstrates, then what we should be doing is creating business environments where the cultural framework nurtures empathy... encouraging communication, trust, collaboration, authenticity, transparency, appeal to intrinsic motivation, etc. Does that start to sound like Agile and Scrum?

This matters now more than ever because thanks to technology and instant communication we are increasingly connected and have unlimited opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. In a follow-up I will explore the the huge upside of not squandering these opportunities. For now I'll just borrow Douglas Hofstadter's words "apathy at the individual level translates into insanity at the mass level", but I plan to turn it on it's head and paint a picture of what the mass level looks like with empathy at the individual level.


  1. Interesting, I did not think of mirror neurons as having implications to being a biological source of empathy.

  2. Self-interest is a tough cookie to crumble. In business, proprietary information and confidentiality are tools that are used to strengthen competitive rank. I personally subscribe to the theory that altruism and transparency in business yields greater benefits both internally and externally.
    Good read James. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. I can't recall the book, but I read recently about a CEO who was meeting with his competition on a regular basis, something that started out as an experiment but led to collaboration and sharing of information resulting in more success for all the companies involved. In other words it wasn't a zero-sum game.

    Is it naive to think that is how things can always work? Sure. Is it an idea worth pursing? I think so.

  4. Or, as Nash would say "Do what is best for yourself and the group to obtain the best result" :)