Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Empathy Gap

Being able to define an emotional problem, or any problem for that matter, is often a key step in our learning to overcome it or at least deal with it. Often we say ‘we can’t get our mind around it’, meaning we can’t define or understand it and therefore we can’t deal with it. For example, the saying ‘to understand all is to forgive all’ expresses our need to get our minds around a situation in order to solve it. When cavemen painted images of the wild beasts they encountered, they were as it were ‘getting their minds around it’ or them, which no doubt gave them confidence and courage, or in a word, power.
In today’s information world, words and phrases are our cavemen paintings. When we can reduce a complex problem or relationship to a pithy two-word phrase that immediately conveys the idea (for example ‘moral hazard’) it helps us to get our minds around it.
Today I came across an important one at Motley Fool. An article was exposing the wisdom of superinvestor Sir John Templeton who was famous for saying "The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy."

Back to Sir John and his sage advice about picking up people's quality "losers" during sharp sell-offs. Of course, keeping a cool head when the heat is on is easier said than done -- a phenomenon that behavioral economists call an "empathy gap."

From The Motley Fool. Read the full article here.

An empathy gap… We instantly know what it means in this context and we instantly recognize its applicability in other areas of our lives. Any time that we know what we should do but are influenced by what those around us are doing, we are experiencing an empathy gap. Living a frugal life in the midst of conspicuous consumption all around us is to experience the empathy gap. Being kind and courteous, being a gentleman when our entourage is far from gentlemanly is to live in the empathy gap. Doing the right thing, for example lending money wisely to homebuyers who qualify when other companies are raking in the money by lending to anyone, is to be strong in the face of the empathy gap.
Of course, we can only experience an empathy gap when we actually know what it is we should do. This is where philosophy can help us, the philosophy we have gained from our own experiences certainly but also the philosophy we can learn from others. There is a great power in this: their knowledge is like a limitless expanse of caveman wall paintings spread before us. The greatest minds past and present left them for us to gaze at. They got their minds around the great problems. All we have to do is to integrate and apply their philosophy in our own lives. And the more we know about philosophy, the easier it becomes for us to sail our own course, the true course, in spite of the empathy gap.
Now we have defined what an empathy gap is, we can be more aware of its danger.


Jack said...

Its really interesting about the views on empathy gap and I would like to say something about this post. What people want now is less about filling a physical need and more about completing an experience. People are seeking products and services that not only meet their actual needs but also meet their psychological, spiritual and emotional needs as well. Getting beyond the hard data to the empathetic insights may make all the difference.

Jack roberts


Alex said...

Thanks for your comment. Feel free to enlarge.
There is a tendency to the spiritual which can be seen in changing attitudes for example towards conspicuus consumption. There is increasing interest in and appreciation of morality as can be seen in the outrage over the credit crisis. More and more people are becoming aware that being in the empathy gap is often a pretty good place to be.

Lou said...

Thanks for the insight. In addition to being the title of a book by JD Trout, The EMPATHY GAP is the name of a problem that our understanding of other people is stretched thin by differences of culture, time, and place. But note that investment bubbles were as common in the time of David Hume (1739) as they are today. What is common is a defect in the design of the human being that makes us mis-estimate risks - overestimating short term risks of a loss and underestimating long term risks of a gain. It is not clear how empathy addresses this problem; but it is part of the solution. For more see -

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond