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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.

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.