On the paradoxes of empathy

Posted on July 1, 2013


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?

Posted in: Museums, Questions