Trends and Predictions in Empathy for 2016

The idea is to pause for a moment and consider the relationship of empathy trends and predictions. I include empathy as an enabler or


Predictions and Trends in Empathy for 2016

something enabled in diverse forms of relatedness. Now admittedly, so many of my predictions for last year were wrong that it is simpler just to acknowledge which three of the twelve proved to be accurate – or at least “in the ballpark” []: (i) In spite of evidence that mirror neurons (the purported physiological basis of empathy) do not even exist, scientific research into them continued to expand at an alarming rate; (ii) health care insurers dominated the high ground in the market for empathy-related “behavioral health” services without actually providing empathy; (iii) and the expanding violence mainly perpetrated by young men (and selected, large governmental organizations) called forth renewed engagements with the need for empathy. Other than that, every item on the list fell short – but the list itself was so engaging that it was worth publishing as a contrarian manifesto or wish list rather than an accurate guide to the future.

You know it is going to be a strange year ahead coming off of one in which the Germans are honored as the most compassionate nation in the first world for agreeing to accept some 800K middle eastern refugees; Argentinian and Brazilian politicians are accused of corruption (for the first time since 2014); and [I apologize in advance for bringing this up again] Vanity Fair puts a middle-aged woman, Kaitlin Jenner, on the cover. I take a similar approach in assembling this year’s predictions and trends

10. Brain science and neurotransmitters become what they already are – metaphors – but what makes the metaphor work is – you guessed it – empathy. For example, Helen Fischer’s book Why Him? Why Her? provides an appalling over-simplification that is selling like hot cakes and reduces our humanity to four types of persons (and not for the first time). Oversimplifying the over-simplification:

The Explorer—the desire-driven, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative neurochemical: dopamine.

The Builder—the centered, calm person who has “traditional values.” Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.

The Director—the results-oriented, “analytical” thinker who enjoys arguing. Operative hormone: testosterone.

The Negotiator—the sensitive, feeling-driven communicator. Operative hormone: estrogen and oxytocin.

Prediction: The psychotherapist who does not mention “the brain” or “neurology” in the first fifteen minutes of meeting a client will lose the prospect.

(9) This is an election year; expect empathy as spin (and as a method of manipulation) to be in evidence. Politics and the truth have always been on a hostile footing (according to Hannah Arendt), and empathy will enable the public to feel good about subscribing to what is not the case, though the vetting of every crazy opinion in public debate is supposed to allow the truth to shine forth. What is missing from politics, from Congress, from the debate? Compromise! What is needed to get to compromise? The ability to see the other’s point of view – and that is a short definition of “top down” empathy. Candidate says Candidate B is a liar; and Candidate B says Candidate A is a liar – and one’s empathy suggests that both are telling the truth!

(8) Empathy is distinguished from compassion. Survey work that I completed in one of my classes at Argosy University indicates that most people define “empathy” as “compassion” [see:]. Heaven knows, the world needs more compassion; but it is not empathy. In short, “empathy” is “vicarious introspection,” which means that one knows what the other feels because one feels it, too, as a vicarious experience such as one would have in the theatre, movies, or reading a novel, not a merger or over-identification. The benefit of properly defining empathy is that one can distinguish the use and misuse of empathy. Empathy can be misused to control and manipulate others. See above regarding politics. Also, empathy has moral relevance, but arguably empathy is not unconditionally prosocial. For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, empathy tells one what the other person is experiencing, morality tells one what to do about it.

(7) Empathy and Jihad. The empathic moment comes as the jihadist appeals to the socially awkward, un-employed or under-employed [Muslim] young man – “we get you as a possibility” – “we get your greatness” – “you want to make a difference” – we have a cause dedicated to justice [“of course “justice” involves blowing up innocent people and enslaving Yazidis and Christians; but, hey, don’t put too fine a point on it”]. Now one may say that the jihadists are actually mis-using empathy – and I would agree – but they are effectively misusing it in such a way that demonstrates they understand how empathy works in this context better than we do. And that is the disturbing point and basis for the call to action. Empathy is about listening. So who are these young Muslim young men going to listen to? Donald Trump? Don’t make me laugh. To me and this blog post? I am still laughing. They are going to listen to other Muslim young men. Hence, the need to employ our empathy to create a clearing for the benefits of free speech, democracy, entrepreneur-ship, and … translation services. Yes, translation. Translation requires recreating the whole world – an entire community – in which words come to life. And here is the reason we need to be friends, make friends with, religions of all kinds, but especially one’s in which young men feel called to participate. Put selfishly, these individuals have skills we need. We need the translators who speak the local language. Unless you speak Arabic or Urdu, you are not going to be communicating with anyone. This is not the only point; but it is a start.

(6) Long shot: historical empathy will transform the gun debate. When the framers of the US Constitution developed the Bill of Rights, the “arms” named in the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” referred to a single shot musket using black powder and lead ball as a bullet. The whole point of the “strict constructionist” approach is to understand what the original framers of the Constitution had in mind at the time the document was drawn up and be true to that intention in so far as one can put oneself in their place. I am a strict constructionist on this point. No one in 1787 – or even 1950 – could have imagined that the fire power of an entire regiment would be placed in the hands of single individual with a single long gun able to unload 300 shots a minute with rapid reload ammo clips. Unimaginable. Not even on the table. This puts the “right” to “bear arms” in an entirely new context. You have got a right to a single shot musket, powder and ball.

(5) Empathy is oxygen for the soul – and how to use this as a litmus test. People will breath easier with empathy. If one is short of breath, maybe one needs expanded empathy. Instead of reaching for Xanax (alprazolam), people will seek out an empowering and empathy-restoring conversation and experience with a gracious and generous listener. This is one way you can tell: If you feel short of breath in the year coming, empathy is contracting around you. If you feel an easy in breathing, empathy is expanding.

(4) The empathy gap widens – between mental health professionals and clients seeking treatment – and continues to grow. Yes, interrupt the crazy story you are telling yourself – interrupt the pathogenic idea. But a premium will be put on the services delivered by those providers and consultants that actually know how to engage in a gracious and generous listening – in how to engage in empathy. Lots more to be said here. Stand by for an entire article on the topic. Short version: Empathy into the gap!

(3) Let them eat cake (again) – especially when it comes to insurance reimbursements for “behavioral health.” The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) promised to equalize benefits for medical benefits such as annual physical health checkup, including $800 worth of blood work, and mental health services such as psychotherapy. Insurers will continue to dominate the market for empathy – without actually providing any. At the risk of being cynical, I don’t know if the reader has tried to collect for services rendered. The war stories, pretexts for nonpayment, and simple violations of the rules by insurers continue to mount. Psychoanalysis is further marginalized financially in our own time since insurance companies, to which the power of the purse has migrated, will not reimburse for it, leaving analysts with an integrity issue as they code the analytic sessions as “four times a week psychotherapy.” Nothing wrong with that as such, but there are contentious arguments in psychoanalysis itself about the difference between the psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. One feels a certain dissatisfaction with the lack of solutions. What to do about it? In spite of claims to the contrary … “But your majesty, the people have no mental health benefits. Then let them pay cash! And then let them eat cake.”

(2) Yet empathy lives. It lives as communicability of affect – empathic receptivity. It lives as empathic understanding of the possibilities of clarifying misunderstandings and restoring relationships. It lives as empathic interpretation in human responsiveness to the vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering and happiness. It lives in empathic listening as a paradoxical use of language in providing a gracious and generous listening to the other person’s narrative and struggle. Empathy lives as a multi-step process encompassing and unifying the diverse aspects of human relatedness.

And the top, number one  prediction is … [drum roll]:

(1) No wi-fi. Talk to one another. I am bold. Restaurants will display signs: “No wi-fi: Talk to one another.” The number one trend and prediction for the new year ahead: People will turn off their smart phones, crack-berries, devices, and appliances, and put value in having a conversation and listening to one another.

© Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: brain science, Empathy, empathy consulting, empathy trends, historical empathy

Tags: , ,

1 reply


  1. Trends and Predictions in Empathy for 2016 |
%d bloggers like this: