Empathy places a strong second in my family of favorite words, right after brevity.   

It’s a big sister to emotional intelligence, a cousin for sympathy, and a parent to maturity.

Without it, we lack social cohesion.  With it we distinguish ourselves from most animals on the planet. 

Core to empathy are listening skills, precise questioning abilities, self-awareness, and rational judgement.  Some confuse empathy with compassion and the notion that we always have to give in to others.  Silly.  Empathy is a word of strength.  Empathy gives you options.  Empathy isn’t always used for “good.” Empathy is a brain and heart thing.

The brain handles cognitive empathy … the ability to understand another person’s perspective or mental state.

The heart handles emotional empathy and the appropriate emotional response to another’s mental state.  (OK, not the heart in a physiological sense … different parts of the brain actually handle both cognitive and emotional, but work with me here … show a little literary empathy.)  

The key point is that full, true empathy is a combination of the two.  I think of it as the Spock plus McCoy equals Kirk empathy formula.  Half human, half Vulcan Mr. Spock openly struggled with empathy, with his cognitive side constantly outweighing his emotional.  The show’s writers could have left that struggle within Spock, but it would have gotten a bit tedious to display the battle entirely within one character … so they had good ol’ Dr. McCoy demonstrate the “I’m just a doctor” emotional component to contrast with Spock.  And then they provided the good Captain Kirk as the well-balanced, self-aware empathic leader we should all strive to be.

But how do we know how well we’re doing?

The Wikipedia psychology experts write that at around two years old individuals show signs of empathy.  Ironically they note this because at that age we start to see games of falsehood and pretending to fool others, which requires one to know what others believe before you can trick them, proving once and for all that empathy is not always used for good.  Then through maturation empathic levels develop as the brain and social interactions develop.  Brain injuries impair empathy.  Conditions such as autism impact empathy.  So to measure empathy we need to focus on the brain, they say.

S. Baron-Cohen (Simon not Sacha) developed a questionnaire to measure your Empathy Quotient (EQ).  It’s “self-reporting” and part of an autism diagnosis process, but they claim it “suitable for use as a casual measure of temperamental empathy by and for the general population.”   For your reference, I scored “50” on their scale to 80.  I wish they provided more context.  50 seems low for a guy saying the second most important word in the world to him is empathy.  But enough about me.

There appears to be significant interest and effort to measure empathy in the medical profession.  (Notice the lack of any snide commentary … that should bump my score a few points, eh?)  The Yale Nursing School developed an “empathic maturity” model that sets out three levels, apparently suggesting only Level 3 people are best capable of the nursing profession.  In another case, the Jefferson Scale of Empathy is used worldwide for physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists etc. as well as for students in those areas.   Speaking of students, there’s the discouraging results from the Journal of Professional Nurses whose study concluded that the more student nurses interacted with patients over time, the lower their empathy scores.  Less patient engagement, the higher the score.  Oops.  At least there are empirical efforts underway.

The good news is we are seeing an expansion of empathy at a group or institutional level … sure, why can’t companies have empathy scores?  In one case, museums are reviewing their institutional empathy to be better stewards for their community as well as their artifact donors, who often in the past didn’t have any choice about their “gift” to the museum. I wonder if the British Museum of Natural History is looking at their institutional empathy.

Finally, more good news in that overall interest in empathy is growing steadily over the last few years in the US, if you believe Google Trends.

Interest in “Empathy” 2004-2018 according to Google Trends

Drilling into the last five years, there is a very odd lapse in empathy interest between Dec 25th and Jan 1 every year … 

I do not have a good hypothesis on that one … maybe exhaustion from attempts to stay on the good and off the bad lists?

Still, I’m heartened to see the growth.  I’d be more heartened (and brained) to see EQs rise at a pace faster than GDP or global warming.  Empathy is important. We’re going to need more of it.

Wikipedia on Empathy
Baron-Cohen’s Empathy Quotient
Declining Student Nurse Empathy
Empathetic Museums
Google Trends Tool on Interest in Empathy