Last time, I introduced empathy as humanity’s secret weapon. Empathy effectively makes us smarter, because it highlights the big picture when we’re unable to see it for ourselves. There are good, logical reasons to help others, to work together, but let’s face it: those reasons are pretty sophisticated, and can be hard to see. Empathy makes our decision easier by making the best choice feel like the best choice. It helps eliminate the doubt and fear of relying on our own analysis. It gives us motivation and courage to act.
Empathy springs from information
And it happens automatically! All we need to trigger empathy is a little information. When we learn enough about another person’s situation, it’s suddenly ‘real’ for us; we move from thought into emotion. We feel their pain – we don’t choose to, we just do – and want to help, if we’re able. If we look back, later, we’ll see that this was also the logical choice for our own benefit, but we couldn’t have figured that out on our own. The more we cooperate, the better life is, for everyone.
When we fail to help eachother, it’s because we don’t know enough to make us feel about the situation. In a tribe of 50 people, a mentally-ill person unable to work would never be left to starve; their obvious need for help would trigger empathy in the people around them, and they would be fed. But in a city of a million people, we don’t know everyone’s name and personal situation, and people do get left behind. City people aren’t any less caring; they just don’t have enough information about each individual to trigger their empathy.
Faces, not numbers
Sure, we have statistics, but they mostly confuse us; when we’re simply thinking about a problem, we are easily overwhelmed. But when, for instance, a charity campaign focuses on individuals – their faces, their emotions, their unique stories – we’re much more likely to help, because we’re feeling. For our empathy to kick in, we need more than just numbers; we need real human stories.
Limited info = limited empathy
Empathy depends on detailed, subjective information. And so for several millennia we’ve been stalled, because of the limits on our communication. We’ve struggled with wars and inequality, because we still couldn’t empathize with entire segments of humanity. They were too far away, too poor to have a voice; for one reason or another, we didn’t see enough of them to connect emotionally. As I mentioned a few posts ago: in previous centuries, we only got information that was backed by money or power, or at least agreeable to somebody with money or power. Charities could only share those individual stories if enough people donated money for ad-space, and if the campaign didn’t offend any corporate sponsors.
Unlimited info = unlimited possibility!
But global communication changes that. Now we can all share our faces, emotions, and stories with the whole world. People starving in Africa aren’t just a sentence in a textbook or a news story anymore; they’re individuals, whose pictures I can see and voices I can hear. Forces of power and control may tell me a certain group of people are full of hate, not worth caring about; but I learn otherwise when I read their blogs.
Extra knowledge tips the scales, and suddenly I’m feeling for people – and that changes everything. How I think, what I say, what I choose to buy, how I vote. Soon, I’m acting in a way that’s best not just for my family, for my pack, for my city or region or country or continent, but in fact for the whole entire world. And, as I’ve said before: when enough people change how they think, social and political change is inevitable.
The more we know about eachother, the grander the scale on which we can – nay, will, automatically – cooperate. This is a new age in human history; the dawn of Global Empathy. What can we accomplish, how much better can we make the world, when we can all actually feel for the rest of the world? When empathy pushes us to collaborate on a global scale? It’s only just begun…