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Are We Entering The Age of Empathy?

Greed is out. Empathy is in.

 

Greed is out. Empathy is in. That's how Frans de Waal begins his book, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons For A Kinder Society. De Waal is a biologist, professor of psychology and director of the Living Link Center at Emory University. In 2007, Time magazine selected him as one of the world's most influential people.

The global financial crisis of 2008, together with the election of a new American President representing a vastly different political and social perspective, has produced a "seismic shift in society," argues de Waal. The distinguished scientist says it is long overdue that we jettisoned our beliefs about human nature--proposed by economists and politicians--that human society is modeled on the perpetual struggle for survival that exists in nature. De Waal says this is mere projection on our part. Nature is replete with examples of cooperation and empathy.

Empathy, de Waal explains, is the social glue that holds human society together. He argues that modern psychology and neuroscience research supports the concept that "empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control." He points to the fact that many animals survive not by eliminating each other, or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.

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Given all we know about empathy in other animal species, why do we persist in seeing human existence, particularly in business, as a fight for survival, with winners and losers? De Waal calls this the "macho origin myth" which insists that the human species has been waging war on itself as millennia as a reflection of our true nature. What has been ignored is the fact that empathy has been evident during that entire time. De Waal points to a mass of examples of sacrifice, empathy, co-operation and fairness in humans and other animals’ species. For example, how many people know that most soldiers are unwilling to fire at the enemy, even in battle?

Unfortunately, philosophy and religion as well as science have long suggested that caring and kindness do not come from our biological nature, but are ways that humans overcome biological instincts. In contrast, aggression, dominance and violence have been attributed to our DNA. According to de Waal, for humans and other advanced animals, sharing, compromise and justice matters. He argues that feeling and acting with empathy for others is as automatic as aggression.

De Waal explains how empathy has three layers. The first layer is emotional contagion, where the flush of emotions runs through a group of people during a dramatic event. The next layer is feeling for others, our empathetic response when we see another's predicament. And the third layer is "targeted helping," the ability to feel the way another does. He suggests that the historical predominant view of humans as slaves to a "selfish gene" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have competing genes--some selfish and aggressive, an others selfless and empathetic--and they are constantly jostling for position. People are complicated and complex, not instinctively cruel and selfish; they are capable of caring and empathy with equal passion and depth.

Given the nature of business survival in a competitive world, de Waal's clarion call that greed is out and empathy is in, may be a call we should all hear.

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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