Weaponized Empathy

In my last post I wrote about the how empathy might the tool to take us out of darker and more intolerant times, but it might also be the reason how we got to this point.

KatanaAs I wrote in a previous post about empathy , there are primarily two kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional empathy.

Just to avoid confusion, I want to highlight that when I mention empathy in this post I refer to cognitive empathy unless otherwise explicitly stated.

I met with my friend and former colleague Allen Smith last Friday for some catching up. We ended up discussing the presidential election and my post with some reflections about empathy as a way forward. Allen said something in line of “Don’t you think that Trump might have won because he managed to weaponize empathy?”.

Weaponized empathy! It really hit me hard. I found this to be pretty spot on.

Later during the weekend I met with another very smart gentleman who said that Trump simply might have looked at the election from a business perspective and followed every insight of what their target customers/voters wanted to hear, without mercy or maybe even considering the consequences. The goal might simply have been to win the election. Goal oriented and short-sighted. Maybe with the idea of crossing the bridge when getting there and ignore it before the election. Ruthless and potentially very effective.

By truly understanding what the key voters feel, hear, see, thinks, what keeps them up at night etc you might the right buttons to push.

In my last post I mentioned the flood of simplified analysis after the US election and maybe this is part of that flood. I found looking at it from an business and innovation angle to be quite interesting nonetheless.

Weaponized Empathy

This notion of actually putting yourself in your user’s or customer’s shoes and truly try to understand the world makes a lot of sense to me.

I made the connection between my budo practice and empathy previously and I realised what a huge blind spot I have in this area. I have taken it for granted that empathy should be used for the good of others. That you learn and respect the tool that is empathy with the intention of a pure heart. I realized that far from all people see it that way or have that intent.

Empathy can be extremely powerful and in the wrong hands it can do a lot of damage.

From a certain perspective Donald Trump and other populist parties seem to be very good at cognitive empathy. They apply the empathy in really trying to undertand their voters: Which buttons to push, which words to use to engage an emotional response. They are even so effective that the voters forget that the leaders of the political parties are very distant from the voter’s reality because they speak “their” language. Lo and behold – It is super-effective! Especially if you understand which threats the voters see and then give a nudge in order to instigate towards a perceived enemy. The enemy doesn’t even have to be real.

Empathy, ethics and morality

When sharing skills that improve empathy and the ability to utilise it, perhaps it would be a good idea to actually discuss moral and ethical aspects of empathy. This is something that I will take with me.

I find that this relates to other aspects of social psychology including  influence. One of the many great things about Robert Cialidini’s book “Influence – The psychology of persuasion” is that it brings up the ethical aspects of influence in a clear and non-threatening way. Anyhow, I find it a very good read.

Back to the need of empathy

Personally, I don’t believe in the concept of good vs evil. I believe in incentives for people to behave in certain ways that can be perceived as good or evil. There are some exceptions to this, but they are luckily very few and very extreme. I believe that people mostly act very rational from their own perspective. In order to understand why someone behaves in what you might think is an odd way, understanding their incentives and their reality is key.

I see empathy as a tool. It should be used with respect because as most tools, in the wrong hands or maybe used in the wrong way it might end up hurting or killing others.

I seem to be wired in a way where I want to use empathy to help others. Other people might be wired to use it for their own direct benefit.

Even after this little reflection about weaponized empathy, I still do believe that empathy is the key for bridging the gaps between people. I believe there is a lot of work that needs to be done and right now populists have a head start.

Peace, love and understanding.

Three things that I am grateful for today

  1. Facilitating an inspiring workshop yesterday.
  2. Some new interesting business leads are emerging.
  3. A small addition to the finances from one of the patent applications that me and great former colleagues submitted a couple of years has been subsequently filed to some more countries.
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