Yes, empathy has become a fad.
Connecting to another human is actually something cool kids do now. If a brand doesn’t have an impact model that includes a practical social issue, consumers tend to not take that brand seriously. In this case, empathy needs to be revisited beyond the trend itself for these strategies to have real, lasting impact.
Practical strategies around compassion meanwhile have similarly become an intrinsic part of social impact organisations. They have become so commonplace that prosocial behaviour has strayed into a kind of tokenism. It is common for instance for consumers to donate their hard-earned money to companies who focus their energies on trying to alleviate real-world issues.
The question then is whether this proxy for compassion isn’t in fact watering down human connections, as well as our positive impact on the issues business and organisations seek to solve with our help.
Postmodern behavioral science
If it is, then we must understand why and how to change that. This is where postmodern behavioral science provides a possible better alternative to social impact strategies. Postmodern behavioral science suggests that the current approach to understanding human behaviour lacks even a rudimentary understanding of empathy, defined in the area of social impact as a discursive strategy that allows us to feel what the group we are trying to help is feeling.
Of course, compassion has very close ties with empathy. Empathy is an innate ability we all have, one that we can learn to develop and fine-tune over time. It is our emotional connection to another human, though one that lies beyond our own ego. It takes the perspective of the person who is struggling and seeks to understand their life, their struggle, and their worldview. It also resolves to value and validate their perspective and experience — something that donating money to a social impact cause does not.
In its broader definition, empathy is a shared interpersonal experience which is implicated in many aspects of social cognition, notably prosocial behavior, morality, and the regulation of aggression.
Empathy has a host of positive after-effects when applied as an interpersonal experience. If a social impact organisation is preoccupied with raising capital, then it is likely to disregard the practical worth of empathy for those who truly want to achieve its mission.
One way that behavioral science can contribute is to utilise tools that can help augment the experience of those in need for those needing to understand those needs. Both AR and VR can help people visualise and follow the stories of those who require compassion. These create virtual environments for partners, governments, and consumers to experience with the people they seek to help.
But of course, much of human behaviour is geared toward seeking pleasant experiences and avoiding unnecessary pain. Our in-built hedonic valuation systems guide decisions towards and away from experiences according to our survival instincts.
This is precisely why business owners who want to encourage empathy in their customers go the easy route, but should seek a more participatory frameworks to inspire and provide experiences for those on board with a social mission.
Then there are issues like financial literacy in underserved populations, access to clean water, education for women and girls, and environmental conservation, to name a few of the problems that social impact companies are attempting to tackle.
If a company is trying to tackle an issue such as access to clean water, then rather than start there, it should first ask exactly how this issue arose and developed. It should question the beliefs that underpin this chronic social inequality, those that inform policies, practices, cultural taboos, and beliefs about water and people’s access to it.
To simply respond to an issue in its developed form is to leave it unfixed. We must be willing to reverse engineer the origins of that issue that got us to where we are. In other words, human behaviour is not the only component to consider in this.
The main behavioral framework public servants should take with them is to develop a nudge unit solely based on the relationship between behavioural science and technology.
This is mainly because technology is an inevitable part of how we now relate to one another. Immersive Compassion meanwhile should embrace tools like AR/VR that seek to create empathetic environments and valuable impact longevity.
To fully embrace empathy as an organisation is to create relevant and rigorous responses that go as far as to alter the infrastructure of its target goals. Optimising social impact comes down to optimising human experience.