Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Increasing Empathy

How cognitive-affective maps can promote mutual understanding

The world abounds with conflicts, from international clashes all the way down to domestic disputes. One valuable method for resolving disputes is empathy—getting a better emotional understanding of other people. A new technique for mapping emotional values has potential for increasing empathy by helping people to grasp their own values as well as those of people with whom they have conflicts.

Consider a minor domestic dispute about who should do the dishes, for example between a parent and a teenager. The parent gets annoyed at the teenager for leaving mounds of dishes in the sink, and the teenager gets annoyed at the parent for being picky and controlling. Neither understands the other's annoyance. A new technique called cognitive-affective mapping can help them to understand each other. A cognitive-affective map (or CAM for short) is a diagram that displays a person's concepts, beliefs, and goals and their connections to each other.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Most important, a CAM also displays the emotional (affective) value of each of these concepts. Emotionally positive concepts are shown by green ovals, and emotionally negative ones are shown by red hexagons; neutrality or ambivalence is shown by yellow rectangles. Concepts that support each other are linked with solid lines, while incompatible concepts are linked by dotted lines. Here is a CAM that shows some of the values that might make a parent annoyed with a teenager.

In the parent's diagram, dishes in the sink is inherently negative (red hexagon), as is the teenager's neglect of them. An attractive solution to the problem would come from the teen doing the dishes (green oval), but nagging is inherently unpleasant for everyone so it's not a good solution for the parent, nor is the parent's doing all the cleanup. Of course, the teenager's perspective on this is very different, as shown in this CAM.

 

He or she does not really care much whether there are dishes in the sink (yellow rectangle), and does not like the prospect of doing the dishes or parental nagging: the preferred solution is that the parent, who after all is the one bothered by the dishes in the sink, should clean them up. Perhaps, if the parent and teenager construct maps of each other, they can increase mutual understanding in a way that can lead to a satisfactory solution to the conflict. One thing that leaps out from comparison of the two maps is that they have something in common: dislike of parental nagging.

My colleagues and I have been using CAMs for many purposes, including understanding international conflicts in the Middle East, explaining cultural developments, and analyzing literary allegories. For example, Scott Findlay did a detailed analysis of the 1978 Camp David negotiations that led to a breakthrough peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. He used CAMs to describe the mental development over 13 days of the Israeli and Egyptian leaders, displaying the emotional changes that took them from conflict to the possibility of peaceful settlement.

Cognitive-affective maps can be produced using any drawing program, but to make it especially easy a group of University of Waterloo software engineering students developed a Google application that can be accessed for free by anyone with a gmail account. For information about how to access this app, along with further information about cognitive-affective mapping, go to http://cogsci.uwaterloo.ca/empathica.html.

Paul Thagard, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

more...

Subscribe to Hot Thought

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.