Week 13: Are we exploiting empathy?

By Leyla Acaroglu

Empathy, a term that was first brought into the English language in 1908, has become somewhat of a hot topic in design and business circles of late. A key part of the process of design thinking and human-centered design, it seems that “more empathy” has become the go-to solution for a myriad of problems, becoming a key part of the mainstream conversation around improving relationships and making better products and services. From better leadership, improved bedside manner for doctors, more progressive politics, and a fix for social crises like refugee relocation and homelessness, the call for more empathy is everywhere. Some schools, like this one in Denmark, are even teaching empathy in their curriculum in hopes of creating happier, kinder adults. But with considerable ethical and social implications, empathy as a tool for engaging with humans is a bit of a complex space, one that offers up many ethical issues that need some deeper exploration of this all-too-human experience.

What is empathy, and how does it affect the human experience? 

By now, you may have already seen Dr. Brene Brown’s work on empathy, especially since she has a new Netflix talk out at the moment that also dives into shame and compassion. If you have never heard of her, then you should at least check out the short video below, which illustrates the difference between empathy and sympathy and highlights the pitfalls in getting these valuable human experiences mixed up. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to feel, see, and understand the feelings of others. But empathy has a very clear physiological and neurological side to the experience (which, by the way, is a fascinating scientific process). We connect with the feelings of others because we are social beings that benefit from empathizing with those around us. In fact, our brains have mirror neurons, whereby our minds mimic the actions and facial expressions of those people we see and interact with so that we are more connected. 

Evolution has served us well when it comes to ensuring that we connect with our fellow humans. You may be one of those people that feels like vomiting when you see someone else doing it, or perhaps tears well when you hear of a friend’s pain. These are all triggered by the vagus nerve, which supports the biophysical reaction that makes up the empathetic responses we have. The vagus nerve runs down the spinal column and connects the emotional center of your brain to all the primary organs in your body, which then interprets things you see into feelings that trigger physical reactions — like vomiting or crying, or even that pang your get in your guts when you hear of a tragedy that doesn't affect you, but you can feel the loss and grief of others. 

Empathy is a cornerstone of the mammalian experience (humans are not the only ones who show prosocial behavior connected to empathy!), as it supports social bonding and builds connections by helping to identify with another’s pain or pleasure so that we can find common spaces and provide support when needed. However, there is a rising trend in misusing this powerful human connection tool to sell more products. 

Exploiting Empathy

Google search ‘empathy map’ and you will find a simple canvas used by design and marketing teams that doesn't really involve engaging with real humans most of the time. Instead, it is used to imagine a potential customer’s emotional space in relation to your product or service. Stage one of the design thinking process is to empathize with your ‘user’ by way of basic interviews and ‘putting yourself in the shoes of others’ by observing and gaining insights into how they feel or think of whatever problem you are attempting to solve. You can read more about the process in over at IDEO or d.School.

This approach to empathy has it diluted down to the sum of its parts — not as a complex holistic experience that considers the emotional, physiological, and deeply critical interpersonal experiences which have effects on people's emotional states and worldviews. Instead, it’s being leveraged to exploit people’s needs in order to sell them more stuff — stuff they may not actually need, nor perhaps can afford, because when we feel like someone understands us and we feel connected to them, we are more likely to connect with what they are trying to get us to buy. Not all empathy building is sinister by any means; much of it is done with good intentions to understand the human experience so that better services can be designed. But there certainly is a host of ethical conundrums that are evoked when empathy is used more so for extraction than for amplification of compassion and intercommunity understanding. There are many different opinions and critiques on design thinking that are worth the read (see here, here, here and here). Touted as the future of sales, with the ability to ‘empathize’ in the design thinking way, empathy can be used to find hidden desires and manipulate these into purchases, which unfortunately plays right into the systems failure of the hyper-consumption loop that has led to so many negative impacts in the first place and continues to create unintended consequences.

Does Empathy Promote Human Connection? 

I did a project a few years ago exploring leadership and specifically looking at why there are so few female leaders in the design sectors, despite the high rate of female graduates from design programs. I use the Disruptive Design Method for all my work, and in the mining phase, I conducted 30 face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with men and women from within the design industry. I asked them all the same starter question and then allowed the 20 minute conversations to flow based on their reactions. I collected data by touch typing their responses instead of recording them so that they felt more comfortable sharing their stories. As a sociologist, I am hyper aware of the power of asking questions, since questions triggers all sorts of emotional reactions in the interviewee and can open up old wounds or trigger entirely new avenues of thought.  As such, respect and consideration need to be held by the questioner. In my case, I felt so many connections with the stories and experiences of the people in front of me that, as a researcher trying to understand the experiences of others so that I could interpret a potential place to intervene to support changes, I ended up identifying a lack of empathetic understanding as a tool for shifting the status quo on this problem arena. 

But for me, this was the critical thing: this was not just about a lack of empathy toward women —  it was a two-way street. People just didn't understand the conditions and experiences of the other gender; thus it reinforced this inability to provide equitable access to resources such as mentoring, emotional support, time off for childcare, etc. Men told me of being seen as being lazy for wanting to leave early to hang out with their kids, and women found it hard to break into a Friday evening drinking circle because it just wasn’t their type of good time. Either way, everyone was stuck a little bit in their own understanding of the world, so in the context of allowing people to flourish in the workplace, building connections between genders, different age groups, and cultural diversity was a point of intervention that I felt could be leveraged to increase leadership opportunities in creative industries. 

So, I developed this Gender Equity Tookit… however, I may have been wrong. I tested the activities with hundreds of people and found, in the moment, increased levels of understanding, empathy, and connection — but I have no idea if this will affect anyone's lives when it comes to work opportunities. I believe the ability to understand others in whatever ways we can is a powerful approach to effecting positive change, but I also worry about the risks associated with one-dimensional empathy building, which leads me to the wider questions around the limits to empathy as a tool for affecting change.

Limits to Empathy 

A decades long study by Sara Konrath on the empathy levels of young people in America has shown that since the 2000’s, empathy has started to decline by around 40%, with many people saying it is not their responsibility to help other people in trouble. For some people, being empathetic is a problem; being able to feel other people’s pain can be debilitating, as it’s exhausting and can lead to a surge in the stress hormone, cortisol, and can even result in bad decision making.

In our current media landscape, where many agents are competing to milk your emotions through the algorithmic cycle of serving your own interests (like most social media platforms now do), we see just how easy it is to be drained by the pull on our empathetic responses to others’ pain and suffering. Click on a story about a child cancer survivor, for example, and the next time you are online, you are served more heartbreaking stories of children's illnesses. This uptick in feeling empathy-induced stress has led to the coining of the terms “empathy burnout” and “compassion fatigue.”  

There are counterarguments against empathy, such as the those put forth by psychologist Paul Bloom, who argues that because empathy creates a hyper focus on one individual that we identify with, it distracts us from feeling connected to bigger issues. There was this story that emerged after the disastrous earthquake that hit Mexico City in 2017 — the story of a small girl being trapped under the rubble of a school that had collapsed. The entire country was gripped with hope and anxiety when authorities announced that Frida Sofia was rescued from the rubble, only to find out days later that the entire story was made up. The backlash to this hyper-focused collective empathy was profound, especially since this same false story line had played out in the 1985 earthquake. 

Adam Waytz provides other areas of concern regarding empathy. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he says, “Failing to recognize the limits of empathy can impair performance,” arguing that it is a zero-sum gain, where the more empathy you expel in one area, the less empathy you have left for others, and critically that in itself can erode ethics.

Ethics can be misguided by empathetic responses, especially when paired with the cognitive biases we all have that support our brains categorizing and preferencing people akin to ourselves. Empathy can absolutely be exploited — and in some cases, weaponized — in order to dehumanize others. We’ve seen this play out in the political theater of the last five or so years, for example, as right-wing populist candidates have come to rise around the world.  One of the common denominators among these politicians is their use of “othering” techniques that utilize empathy for some victims and not others. They evoke a sense of hate toward some victims (such as the parents of school shootings) and portray them as liars, thus othering them. This results in what’s been called selective empathy, which not only creates division, but it also creates a major distraction around important issues that the world so desperately needs to focus on, like climate change, poverty, clean energy — basically all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Ethics of Empathy 

So is empathy a useful tool for effecting change? Yes. Is it a tool that can be misused or exploited? Yes. Can empathy create more problems than it set out to solve? Yes, yes, and yes. When used as a core part of decision making, consciously or not, empathy can lead to positive, negative, and even immoral outcomes.

So what should we do with empathy? Use it well. Like any knowledge, knowing how something works should inform us on how to ensure we use it well, with respect and integrity, which is critical in the case of empathy. This means empathy should always be served with a good helping of ethics. Considering the ethical implications of triggering an empathetic response, or extracting responses based on empathy triggers in people, should, like all other aspects of our social conduct, be used in ways that don't manipulate, exploit, or create suffering in those around us. Of course, this Utopian view of ethical empathy use is far from the reality, but the case for ditching the fake one-dimensional version of empathy used by marketing and business development people is the first step in getting over the tragic empathy milking that occurs in the name of sales and profits. And for our day-to-day interactions with other humans, perhaps we should leverage compassion instead.


At UnSchool Online we offer a host of deep dive classes into topics like ethics and empathy, cognitive bias, and systems thinking. You can also to level up your leadership and creative change making skills.