Monday, December 31, 2007

On Empathy

I linked to this article on empathy from the Washington Post last week in my speedlinks, but I think it merits its own post, with some additional insight from Daniel Goleman. He suggests that our natural inclination is to help -- we are hard-wired for empathy. So what has gone wrong?

You may not realize it, but a great number of people suffer from EDD.

No, you're not reading a misprint of ADD or ED. The acronym stands for empathy deficit disorder.

Nor will you find it listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, even though that tome has been expanding as normal variations of mood and temperament have increasingly been defined as disorders. I'm hesitant to suggest adding another one. But this one is real.

Based on my 35 years of experience as a psychotherapist, business psychologist and researcher, I have come to believe that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition with profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society. People who suffer from EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes -- even hatred -- among groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life.

Take the man who reported to me that his wife was complaining that he didn't spend enough time with their children, that she had most of the burden despite having a career of her own. "Yeah, I see her point," he says in a neutral voice, "but I need time for my sports activities on the weekends. I'm not going to give that up. And at night I'm tired, I want to veg out." As we talked further, it became clear to me that he was unable to experience what his wife's world was like for her.

Or the computer executive who prided himself on having a stable family life, then casually told me that, even though he believed in the environmental threat of global warming, he couldn't care less. "I'll be long gone when New York is under water," he said. And when I asked him whether he cared about how it might affect his kids or grandkids, he replied with a grin: "Hey, that's their problem."

Read the rest

I'm not a fan of pathologizing normal behavior, but this is something that needs to be addressed in some way. Empathy may be the one thing that if everyone practiced it, could save the world.

Author Daniel Goleman, in his TED Talk, addresses this topic.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, asks why we aren’t more compassionate more of the time. Sharing the results of psychological experiments (and the story of the Santa Cruz Strangler), he explains how we are all born with the capacity for empathy -- but we sometimes choose to ignore it.

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