Almost Timely News, 19 December 2021: Empathy Deficit, 12 Days of Data

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What’s On My Mind: The Empathy Deficit

What is empathy, and why do we care? The short, academic definition is:

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. – The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley

We live in a massive empathy deficit at the moment. One look at the headlines or a site like and conversations about how we treat each other, about how we do business with each other, and the deficit is clear. We lack empathy almost entirely in our interactions with others.

Why? Why have things gotten so bad? It isn’t just the pandemic, though certainly the added strain and trauma of a global disease is part of the puzzle. Our empathy deficit has been decades in the making, however.

What does empathy do for us? It helps us bond, it helps us find common ground, it helps us soothe and comfort each other in times of trouble. When we express empathy, we help others and help ourselves in the process. From a human perspective, empathy is a really good thing, and we need more of it in our lives.

From a commercial and control perspective, it isn’t. If your job is to sell more stuff by any means necessary, persuading people that they can soothe their pains through purchasing things – we even invented the term retail therapy to explain this – is what you’re after. In fact, we go out of our way as marketers to reinforce the self over others; count how many times during the holiday shopping season you see messaging and marketing about what you deserve, buying a little something for yourself, treating yourself right. That’s not to say you don’t deserve nice things, but the messaging and marketing is encouraging you to face inwards instead of outwards towards others.

The expression of empathy is counterproductive to this commercial goal. If people find comfort and calm in each other, then they don’t need to buy our stuff to make themselves feel better. If they find self-worth and value in a community, then retail therapy rings hollow.

Second, if your job is to persuade people to support your cause, there’s no easier way to rally people to your banner than by creating an enemy to rally against. Politicians and demagogues have done this since time immemorial, creating us vs. them divisions where divisions didn’t previously exist. We even create those divisions for commerce; rallying Red Sox fans against Yankees fans to sell more stuff. What’s changed in the last 20 years is the reach and power of this kind of messaging and marketing, and the artificial intelligence algorithms used to reinforce it.

If you’re trying to create an us vs. them split, empathy is your enemy. You can’t rally people to your cause if they don’t believe the “other” is really the enemy. On the other hand, if you can convince people to abandon empathy and demonize others, you can make the division so stark that it becomes as powerful and as compelling as religion, making your cause part of their identity. Consider the state of politics in many nations right now, so divisive and so ingrained in people’s identities that it is literally killing them.

What’s the solution to the decimation of empathy? As marketers, we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to abandon tactics that persuade people to deprive themselves of empathy. If our products and services are good enough, we should be able to reach people without resorting to soul-crushing marketing tactics. Instead of telling people to simply buy more stuff to feel better, let’s find ways to persuade people to behave with more empathy towards each other and work our products and services in more organically to the ideal outcome.

As individuals, we desperately need to find our tribes, find our people in the world and start there, start rebuilding a sense of concern and care for those closest to us – and then those close to them, and so on and so on until we remember why we should care about each other – and how good it feels when we do.

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ICYMI: In Case You Missed it

If I had to suggest only one of these articles to read from this week, it would be the latest entries in our 12 Days of Data 2021 edition. I put this series together every year and it’s always an eye-opening delight to see the year in review from a data perspective. Let’s get caught up!

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See you next week,

Christopher S. Penn

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