On the paradoxes of empathy

Recently empathy has become a topic hot for discussion in museum circles. Whether in Gretchen Jenning’s expressed frustration that many museums struggle to respond empathetically to traumatic community events as they happen, Regan Forrest’s discussion about the role of empathy in interpretation or Dana Mitroff Silver’s work on design thinking in museums, empathy is having a moment. The thing is, I’m not sure I fully understand empathy or the role it can play in institutional processes, so I’ve decided to explore the subject in a little more depth.

The word empathy is derived from the German Einfühlung, and was first understood to mean ‘feeling into’, and related to ideas of sympathy and understanding. (An aside – Magdalena Nowak describes how the term Einfühlung also has particular connection in its use to the interpretation of art and history from 1873, when Richard Vischer used the term to describe ‘the viewer’s active participation in a work of art or other visual forms. It was a mutual experience of exchange between the body and the perceived object.’)

If empathy is ‘feeling into’ another person or an object, does that mean it’s a concept primarily related to emotions? Maybe not. In a 2012 article on Sherlock Holmes and empathy, author Maria Konnikova argued that Holmes’ cold reason, his detachment from emotion, actually enables Holmes to be empathetic. She proposes that being too emotionally involved actually stifles our capacity for empathy, for thinking ourselves into another position and necessarily out of our own, because it is impossible for us to leave our personal feelings out of the equation.

Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion.

If Konnikova is right and empathy isn’t intrinsically emotional, what is it? Psychologist Paul Ekman recently described to Daniel Goleman three different kinds of empathy, being cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy enables perspective-taking, and is useful in negotiations or motivating people (this seems to be the type Konnikova is referring to). Emotional empathy leads to a kind of emotional contagion, in which it becomes possible to feel what another person feels. Finally, compassionate empathy is empathy that firstly enables us to understand someone else’s position, but also motivates us to act upon those feelings.

Empathy, then, is not straightfoward. What kind of empathy should museums employ? With such inherent compexity, does empathy necessarily enable better planning or decision making? Almost all discussion I’ve read in regards to empathy and museums has taken as given that empathy is good. Regan writes persuasively about the importance of treating visitors as people, as individuals rather than numbers, and Gretchen paints a picture of empathetic museums as museums that are understanding and aware. But does an inclusion of empathy in design or interpretation always create positive outcomes for the institution and its visitors?

In a provocative piece against the broad movement towards empathy, Paul Bloom writes that empathy is ‘parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate.’ He suggests this because we find it easier to empathise with a specific individual whose name and face we know, than to do the same with an identity-less ‘other’. This aligns with Nowak’s piece, in which she expresses that Einfühlung emphasised the specificity of particular examples. She writes, ‘Empathy denies the possibility of a comprehensive and general description of feeling and perception, and rather stresses subjective, individual experience.’ (p323) Or, as philosopher Jesse Prinz puts it, ‘We cannot empathize with a group, except by considering each member.’ (p17)

My impression of the move towards empathy within museums – and design thinking – is indeed to position these subjective, individual experiences at the heart of the design process. As Susan Spero writes:

Over and over, one of the big lessons in design thinking seems to be don’t assume—discover directly. The insights gained from talking directly to users informs our understanding of their needs, which in turn makes all the difference between spinning one’s wheels and developing solutions that people can actually use. And prototyping and iterating along the way provide constant check-ins and mechanisms for adjustments.

The connection to visitors that Regan mentions in her post on interpretive empathy also comes directly from talking to visitors; from having a personal relationship with them, from considering them as individuals. So, does planning better specific experiences based on particular visitors necessarily lead to a better outcome for all visitors? Bloom’s piece argues that sometimes the ‘politics of empathy’ can actually lead to poor decision making, such as when sensible policies of greater benefit for vast numbers fail to persuade as convincingly as the stories of individuals who will be affected. Individual experiences seem more meaningful than abstract ones, but might not benefit as many.

It might also be worth noting that empathy is highly selective. As Prinz describes, we all carry empathetic biases, the sort that might make us more likely to empathise with the cute over the ugly, or the person more like us than the one who isn’t. Empathy increases for those who have a close cultural or geographic proximity to our own. Even as it has the power to move us from our own position towards an understanding of others, empathy is not necessarily applied equally. It therefore cannot always offer a solution that will be appropriate for the many and faceless, rather than for the identified few.

Bloom argues that, ‘A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy.’ He continues,

it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers, or to feel toward someone you’ve never met the degree of concern you feel for a child, a friend, or a lover. Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.

Empathy is paradoxical. We cannot think ourselves into the mind or emotions of everyone and still maintain our sense of self. But if we never attempt to move from our own position, which necessarily privileges those concerns and people that have personal meaning, can we ever create institutions that are appropriately inclusive and sensitive to others?

It is in this gap between the particular and the universal that I find myself uncertain about the role of empathy in museums. Although I definitely think empathy is an important personal trait, I don’t know where it fits institutionally. Would an ’empathetic museum’ be one that is ‘truly visitor-centered, dedicated to inclusion, and committed to its community’ per Jennings’ idea? I’m not sure, since empathy is necessarily particular rather than general. Maybe it would instead look something akin to the ideas Orhan Pamuk puts forward in his modest manifesto for museums, which honour the ‘the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals’?

This is a new line of inquiry for me, so I’d love to hear more from others who’ve done more thinking or work in this area than I. How do you think about or define empathy, and does it play a role in your work? And what relationship do you think empathy and rationality should or do play in the decision making process for museums?

27 thoughts on “On the paradoxes of empathy

  1. Thanks for the link to Bloom’s article. On reading it, I think his critiques is less about empathy per se and more about sentimentality. One can morph into the other but I don’t think they are the same thing. He also points out how humans find it much easier to deal with the small and concrete rather than the large and abstract. This is just a fact of psychology and I think what we need to do is understand human nature and use it (a bit how Chip and Dan Heath talk about in “Made to Stick”, rather than get exasperated because humans are human and not “econs” for instance (In “Nudge”, Sunnstein and Thaler describe “econs” as the rational self-interested agents in economics theory who are decidedly not “human”).

    Of course I would say this as a mixed methods researcher, but I don’t think statistics and stories are enemies. I think we get our best insights when we look at them together.

  2. Hi Suse,

    Great post!

    As you know, web designers always try to develop use case scenarios for typical users to help them meet the needs and expectations of website users. It occurs to me that perhaps museums should do the same thing when designing exhibitions and other programs. It’s one way to avoid designing for individual experiences, for empathizing only with people who are like the designers.

    1. To some extent this already happens in exhibit design, particularly when it comes to the design of interactive exhibits. When I worked in exhibition design, one of my jobs was to try and think through different scenarios for how exhibits may be used by different visitors. The fact I wasn’t a designer could sometimes help because I brought a different perspective to the process. The way it’s could definitely be improved upon but there is a baseline practice there.

  3. Hi, Suse, thanks for extending the “empathetic museum” conversation. I think I will post more about this soon on my blog, but just wanted to respond briefly to your reflections.

    One thing your post has clarified for me is that I realize I am using empathy in a metaphorical sense here. Obviously an institution does not have a brain or a lymbic system or the other elements that allow humans to have emotions. And institutional empathy does not, in my view, rest in the feelings or emotions of the director or staff of a museum (though of course they could be very empathetic as individuals). Rather, as Elaine Gurian stated in the pop-up session where we discussed The Empathetic Museum at AAM, institutional empathy is based on clear-eyed policy decisions about the stance the museum intends to take regarding its community/audience (this can be local or much broader depending on the focus of the museum).

    Secondly, I can see why you think institutional empathy is paradoxical if you accept the premises of the folks you have quoted – that empathy cannot be generalized, that it must be directed at individuals rather than groups. I just don’t agree with their views. Both the Civil Rights movement in the US and the Women’s movement globally were led primarily by people who knew and had lived the experience of the groups they were fighting for. I am certain they had empathy for individual Blacks or women, but they also empathized with them as communities who had suffered. The leaders – mostly Blacks and women themselves, empathized with these groups and sought redress for entire classes of people with whom they they felt a strong kinship. And took very concrete, difficult, and reasoned actions in this regard.

    For me instututional empathy in museums is grounded in the definitions of museums that I find in orgnizations like ICOM and AAM, which describe museums as existing “in the service of society” and with strong connections to and obligations toward their audiences. More later on Museum Commons, but just wanted to get back with some initital thoughts.

  4. Thanks for three great responses! This is precisely what I was hoping for when I wrote this post – a chance to explore what empathy can and should mean when we’re talking about museums, and I think these answers start to clarify it for me.

    Gretchen, your point about ‘metaphorical empathy’ is useful. On Twitter yesterday, Mia Ridge asked whether empathy could ‘be a world-view as well as a method for insight in design?’ Your response seems to move closer to that idea, particularly when you draw in examples from the Civil Rights and Women’s movements. The idea then is about connecting with individuals to learn more from them and their own perspectives, and then extrapolating out from there to something more general, yes?

    Regan, I’m interested by your observation about Bloom’s piece, and the idea that he is perhaps about sentimentality than empathy. What makes you say that? It’s worth noting that his piece was criticised at the time it was written (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-zakaras/the-case-against-the-case_b_3288394.html), because it does not necessarily pay heed to the intellectual, rational and cognitive elements of empathy.

    What I start to wonder in light of this discussion is whether institutional empathy then takes a more rational approach than an emotional one? This would seem to line up more clearly with Gretchen’s idea that institutional empathy involves ‘clear-eyed policy decisions about the stance the museum intends to take regarding its community/audience’.


    1. Hi again Suse, I decided to look up “sentimentality” to ensure I was using it in the correct sense – Wikipedia says that “current usage defines it as an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason”, and I think that’s what I mean here. Empathy is more complex and multifaceted than sentimentality.

      Gretchen has articulated something important here about institutional “methaphorical” empathy being different from personal “limbic” empathy. I think in this sense I align with Mia’s contention that it is a world view. An empathic world view sees the value in trying to see things from another’s point of view. That “other” can be an individual but it can also be groups of people who share common values and experiences.

      1. Regan, in terms of seeing things from another’s point of view – especially in the group context – do you think museums then have a responsibility to particular ‘others’? I guess what I’m getting at is whether an ’empathetic museum’ necessarily looks to prioritise non-majority perspectives?

      2. “. . . whether an ‘empathetic museum’ necessarily looks to prioritise non-majority perspectives?”

        Interesting question Suse, and this gets us into how “activist” we think a museum can or should be. And what we mean by “prioritise” – does this mean simply showing these perspectives or does it mean somehow advocating for them?

        Your question reminds me of some research that my supervisors did with visitors to a small exhibition on the Stolen Generations (a brief summary here http://reganforrest.com/2013/03/hot-interpretation-telling-difficult-stories/) Building a sense of empathy was important for people connecting to the subject matter. One thing they found is that the visitors who made the strongest connections were those who were of a similar age to the children being discussed – they could picture their own idyllic Australian childhoods and contrast it to what was going on at the same time without their awareness. But the research can also go to far – if people feel they’re being lectured to then they can start to switch off. It can be a tricky balance between highlighting alternative points of view on the one hand, and visitors feeling lectured about what they should think about these perspectives on the other.

  5. Thanks for a thought-provoking post and insightful links. I agree that it is well worth our time to explore the nuances of empathy. I’ve gone on a book reading binge about design thinking after experiencing several design thinking workshops this past spring. One that strikes me that might contribute to the discussion here is Tom Kelly’s book on the “Ten Faces of Innovation” which offers roles that serve the design thinking process. The first he discusses is the role of “anthropologist.” He starts with this role, just as the design thinking process asks us to begin by “going into” the problem. Kelly details his understanding of the anthropologist’s mindset noting their use of a beginner’s mind, and their skills to embrace all of human behavior with all of its surprises—activities that I think are related to being empathetic. As I learn more about design thinking, I become even more adamant that as museum professionals we need to experience, observe, and interview to more fully understand our audiences needs, actions and interests—and empathy is just one of the tools to help us do this. Some museum evaluators succeed at doing this very well, though much evaluation does not in spite of good intentions.

    The New Yorker article you quote does highlight the paradox of how on the one hand we have an ability to relate to (empathize with) the concrete individual’s situation and on the other hand we often seem unable to understand the more statistical version and therefore abstraction of the same issue. People can grasp both, but they need to be encouraged to do so. Figuring out how and when to translate our empathic understanding into social action is unquestioningly one of the toughest challenges we face today. Getchen’s pop-up session and blog posts are challenging us to figure it out and I appreciate her noting that it can be done.

    This whole discussion thoughtfully reminds us that yes, empathy has its limits and it does (one of your overarching points of the post, yes?) Given all of this, I’d argue that we need to develop and use our empathy, then test our empathic understanding to see if it holds and actually helps us resolve problems. Regardless of how empathy helps solve problems, bottom line for me is that empathy strengthens relationships—something crucial to museum work.

    Thanks for starting the discussion: there is so much to talk about surrounding empathy from our efforts to get our audiences to empathize with content, to getting us to empathize with them. I look forward to more.

    1. So, often when I start writing a post I think it’s going to go in a very different direction from the one it actually ends up taking. And when I started writing this post, I actually thought it was going to be about using empathy internally within the museum; about how empathy – cognitive, perspective-taking empathy – can actually enable staff to better understand one another in order to work better. That by trying to understand why that pesky [insert position here] is ‘getting in the way’ of a project you’re trying to achieve, you might also be able to work out if and how to solve their ‘problem’ in order to find a better answer for both you and them. Clearly I didn’t end up down that path, but your comment about empathy strengthening relationships pulls me back to that initial impulse that drove me to start thinking about empathy at all. Because actually even if empathy is personal rather than institutional it does still have meaning and purpose within the museum beyond simply trying to affect museum audiences.

      The observation about using a beginner’s mind or a naive mind is interesting, but I wonder how challenging it is in ‘normal’ business. I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how I sometimes find it harder to ask ‘naive questions’ now that I’ve been in the sector for a few years and know what the answers are (meant to be). I wonder how challenging it is to continue to put yourself into the position of ‘beginning’ when addressing a sector you are familiar with?

      1. Oh yes, the joy and struggles of achieving a beginner’s mind! The assignment my students did prior to my bringing Dana Mitroff into my spring class (my post you link to above) was to go to a museum they do not really know and analyze it with a novice mindset. For guidance, I had them apply Stephanie Weaver’s steps from her book “Creating Great Visitor Experiences”. After we did the design thinking workshop mid-quarter, I found myself thinking that the same assignment could be done by asking students to go to a museum accompanying an actual novice visitor. To support your experience point, even after just nine months of course work (and typically some actual museum experience) our museum studies students know much about museums and good practices.

        What is astonishing though is their findings. Every year since I have assigned this paper, Weaver’s comfort step remains a huge problem for visitors. How can museums still not understand seem to understand that people need comfortable places to sit in order to think and reflect? For me, museums inability to get this basic human need seems like such a lack of empathy towards visitors. If we can’t get seating, which is such an obvious idea,how can we possibly respond to more abstract and illusive needs?

        With this thinking though, I also find myself circling back to one of your initial themes in this post: how effective it is to use empathy with individual experiences as the basis for making broad-based changes? Would setting up an empathy producing trial experience with a few novice visitors lead us to conclusions that would only serve a limited few? How many empathic anecdotes are enough to decide? (To grouse a bit about chairs: just how much data do we need to just put comfortable seating into the galleries? How about 10 years worth of student papers—individual anecdotes—all noting that there are never enough comfortable chairs?) I guess is that sometimes it can seem as though we have lots of empathy and have used it to understand the problems, yet change still hasn’t happened. So empathy, as crucial as it is, is not enough.

        Great thread Suse, thanks for the conversation.

  6. For me, one of the biggest challenges for museums and empathy is the tension between vulnerability and authority. On the one hand, there’s still the expectation of the authoritative voice from museums (although this is being challenged and questioned in lots of compelling ways). But museums are still supposed to be experts and reliable sources on a a subject. Empathy, on the other hand, often comes with expectations of openness and vulnerability. To empathize is to open yourself to the experiences of others to such an extent that you may lose your own sense of self and authority (as you mentioned before).

    So how does a museum exhibit genuine empathy towards a subject while still positioning themselves as a trusted resource on the subject? Are the two ideas at odds with each other? Should one trump the other? If so, when? Can you empathize while remaining objective, or is it no longer the museum’s responsibility to maintain objectivity? Is empathy part of the necessary process of moving from “the temple” to “the forum?”

    1. @museumaskew, I keep coming back to this comment because it identifies a few interesting tensions. But to pick just one: does expertise necessarily imply a sort of closedness?

      1. Honestly? I don’t know.

        If you associate expertise with a sense of finality – everything there is to know on a subject is known – then, yes, I think it can. On the other hand, if you associate expertise with fluidity – and the idea that truth can be dynamic and subjective – then, no, expertise doesn’t demand closedness. I’ve seen both in museums and individuals.

  7. Suse,

    You know that one of my passions is applying the Reggio Emilia educational approach in museum settings. And in Reggio building community and establishing empathy from a young age is very important. The Portland Children’s Museum includes Opal School and the Center for Learning, and is one example of an organization that has combined Reggio Emilia with the museum environment. Located within the museum using its existing art spaces, outdoor areas, and exhibits, the mission of Opal School is to ‘provoke fresh ideas concerning environments where creativity, imagination, and the wonder of learning thrive’.

    Susan Mackay is the Director of the Museum Center for Learning, and I had an amazing conversation with her while I was there. She inspired me in how she spoke of the importance of establishing a respectful community of learners. She said ‘We have to participate as a community, together, in order to get a full perspective. At Opal School the children learn this at a young age; we’re building empathy from the beginning’. Because of this focus on empathy, in 2013 Opal School was designated a Changemaker School in the Ashoka network’s Start Empathy initiative.Had you heard of this? It may be something to look into.

    Because of this sort of cross-discipline approach (a school within a museum), and working in a Children’s Museum myself, I see empathy as important in just the way that Susan describes. It’s instilling these values in children by modeling behavior that illustrates that being open to others’ perspectives and experiences is key to building a strong community. We do a good bit of work around anti-bullying resources and initiatives at the museum, which are mostly within the context of our Power of Children exhibit. I’ve suggested to our preschool director that we look into this Changemaker School program, because it seems very relevant to our museum as well!

    This is how I see empathy in the museum setting – providing opportunities for it and modeling behavior. At the risk of oversimplifying – What are museums about if not sharing new perspectives and opening eyes to others’ experiences and ideas?


  8. I am glad I have come across this conversation on a topic that still preoccupies my mind. A couple of years ago in Museums and the Web 2011, after my paper on the use of empathetic design in the development of digital media interpretation for heritage sites (http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2011/papers/situating_cultural_technologies_outdoors_desig), several people approached me to ask about the resource-intensity of the approach and also to chime in with my concern that although museums are keen to include visitors/people in the design of new interpretation/interventions and so forth, they often see this relationship as an one way affair, i.e. the designer/museum professional gathers information about the needs and desires of the visitor/user. When I was devising the methodology for the RAMP project, I found Wright and McCarthy’s take on empathetic design very useful (Empathy and experience in HCI, 2008): “In an empathic relationship the ‘designer’ does not relinquish his/her position to ‘become the user’, a position from which nothing new can be created, rather the designer responds to what they see as the user’s world from their own perspective as designer. By holding onto their own perspective each person is able to creatively respond to the other from their own perspective.”

    On the basis of this idea we put together a series of co-experience workshops which gave us (the designers/interpretation experts) and the participants the opportunity to co-experience a heritage visit, which, we believed allowed us to develop a sense of how the participants were approaching the visit as it unfolded. On the other hand the participants also got a sense of how we approached the interpretation process and engaged with different interpretive resources. The result of these workshops was an interpretive approach that ended up adopting some of the communication modes that we had all used in our co-visits; for instance part of the interpretation was delivered in the form of dialogue. As I am currently working through the initial findings from the first part of the evaluation of this project, I can see that the content that derived from these co-experience workshops has actually got relevance beyond our immediate participants as some of our evaluation respondents suggested that aspects of the interpretation mirrored their own response/reaction to the site as they were walking around it.

    On the other meaning of empathy in museums, there is an excellent set of workshops currently organised on the topic in the UK: Silence, Memory, Empathy (http://silencememoryempathy.wordpress.com/).

    1. Areti, thank you for sharing your experiences and those links. Your quote from Wright and McCarthy particularly catches my interest, and reminds me of the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, that ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.’ So maybe empathy is, itself, necessarily paradoxical, because it is then about being able to hold onto one’s own experience and to make room for imagining someone else’s needs and experience, and finding meaning in the gaps herein?

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