Transdisciplinary Design

Our Neighbors, Ourselves: empathy, rivalry, and ‘that German word’

Posted on November 23, 2010 | posted by:

Why can’t we be like those Coke commercials from the 70s and 80s and get along in harmony? Don’t we all just want to be happy? Not necessarily it seems.

Maybe what we seek are constant oscillations in satisfaction. We may simply want to feel satiated and we gladly leave the whole happiness facade to the glass half full people. Though they may be the first of us to have LOL Cats conveniently bookmarked for easy access, a fatty treat to keep their pleasure zones occupied. Happiness achieved? Not quite.

I have questions, lots and lots of questions… and a pile of books waiting for ‘winter break’ to role around so I can better understand empathy and happiness. This journey was sparked by my interest in honing in on a point of view. I thought I should start with a core belief, something that I felt to be ‘true’ since I was a kid. I decided this would be my long standing view that the world’s problems are not caused by lack of money or people power but by a lack of empathy; of course the word empathy entered my vocabulary years later, but the sentiment was there early on. Now that I have begun learning more and testing this belief my questions are growing quickly.

Something is nagging at me as I begin to scratch the surface on what empathy is, why it matters and how to activate it in a meaningful way. It’s this notion that empathy, happiness and a positive attitude (and rainbows and singing in harmony and a unicorn for good measure) can ride in like the good sheriff and set things straight. The reality is we are far too complicated for that. In fact I’ll wager my cats are even too complicated for that. So what then might set off a (magical) spark that creates a transformational experience, a permanent change in perspective? At what point can our neighbor’s best interests be our own as well? Ok maybe that’s just in a land of candy dreams, but really, what does it take for us to give a d*mn and act on it?

The answers may be in our less desirable traits. It may be that transformation happens when we are internally dancing between the sheriff (mercy and justice) and the thief (our more selfish nature). It may be that the difficulty is not that we have trouble empathizing with those that are most different than us, but maybe it is that we have trouble empathizing with those that are most like us. Maybe competition can be used to trigger empathy rather than to pull us further away from it.

Competition and rivalry can help push us to a better performance but it can also transform those we compete against into ‘the other’, stripping away our empathy. Competition between well matched rivals can lead to corrupt behaviour (1). It may be that these intense feelings of arch rivalry are what leads us to ‘that German word’: schadenfreude. Although the word may be easy to forget the sentiment is not. Schadenfreude is the pleasurable feeling you can get when you witness the misfortune of others. “When groups or even entire nations feel schadenfreude, it can become more potent and insidious, driving deep-seated prejudices that can lead to violence.”(2) These are the ‘glass is empty’ moments, when the worst of our nature is revealed. These may be the moments where empathy can have the most impact.

It could be that meaningful empathy is most likely achieved by intervening in an ongoing rivalry before it shifts and corrupts behaviours. It may also be that a key to creating empathy that is acted upon is to reveal unhealthy rivalries and schadenfreude for what they are. By pulling back the curtain and revealing our behaviours we may help make permanent shifts in how people view the well being of ‘their neighbor’ and their community.

It looks like my reading list is about to get a heck of a lot longer.

(1) Scientific American Mind, December 2010, Meeting Your Match by Ferris Jabr
(2) Scientific American Mind, December 2010, Their Pain, Our Gain by Emily Anthes

Kelly Tierney