Empathy and Compassion vs. Self-Interest – Is This The Great Divide?

starbucks unicorn frappucino

Since when did empathy become a dirty word? Since when did compassion for others become a bad thing?

If you’ve so much as glanced at the internet in the past few days, you’ve most likely seen a lot of opinions regarding the Unicorn Frappuccino from Starbucks. When conceived by the powers that be at Starbucks, they most likely (and quite correctly) viewed this limited time offer as a real money-maker.

What no-one saw coming was the amount of vitriol that would be spewed on social media over a brightly coloured coffee shake. Sugar shamers, anti-capitalists, and celebrity chefs tore both the drink and the company apart — all while others spoke up for the beverage, calling it nothing more than a bit of fun.

I personally didn’t take much of a stance on the issue. I could see how some people might like it, and some people might not, but I didn’t see a need for all the angry words. But then, as they so often do, Buzzfeed managed to drag me into the fray.

After reading an article on the site that revealed just how much Starbucks baristas hated the drink, I scrolled to the comment section and was hit by a wall of disdain. The overwhelming majority of commenters came to the same conclusion, “It’s your job. Suck it up and quit complaining.”

For a site mostly frequented by liberal millennials, I was shocked to see such a lack of empathy/compassion. We all know what it’s like to dislike a certain part of our job, whether it’s demanding, intricate, or just plain annoying — and we all complain about it at some point or another.

Yet, even though these poor baristas were not adequately prepared by the company for the dramatic increase in business and demand, and have had to suffer through mind-numbingly long shifts, running out of supplies, and customer abuse, they’re not allowed to vent?

What happened to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? I mean, hell, I’ve never worked in retail, yet I can definitely feel the baristas’ pain.

A few months ago during a political discussion, my dad and I came to the conclusion that the greatest divide in society isn’t really between conservatives and liberals, it’s between empathy/compassion and self-interest. Empathy and compassion are nuanced. I refer to compassion here too, because some people on the autistic spectrum may not feel empathy, but may have huge compassion and an active desire to help and support others.

We are all fundamentally set at odds by our ability to feel for others — and it’s only getting worse.

Empathy/Compassion Isn’t a Dirty Word

Used to refer to people who are perceived to be too sensitive, easily offended, and weak, the term “snowflake” is hard to avoid on social media and comment sections these days. It’s a phrase thrown around in attempt to dismiss empathy/compassion as being infantile, the sign of a feeble-minded crybaby. But when did compassion for others become a bad thing?

Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling — and it’s a truly amazing thing.

Empathy/compassion empowers you to treat others as you wish to be treated. It allows you to understand the needs of people around you. It gives you the power to recognize how others might perceive your words and actions. It provides you a leg up when dealing with interpersonal conflict both at home and at work. It lets you experience the world in a deeper and more meaningful way, as you’re able to appreciate the perspectives of those around you.

Most of all, empathy/compassion makes you a better leader, better friend, and better person.

It takes a strong person to be empathetic or compassionate. Not only does it require being open-minded and willing to change your point of view, it often means admitting when you were wrong. Although some empathy/compassion comes naturally, it still must be nurtured and developed. Being empathetic or compassionate is hard work, and can be incredibly exhausting at times. But it’s worth it in the end.

The Role of Empathy/Compassion in Politics

When looking to understand why empathy/compassion often takes a front seat in politics, we must turn our attention to the work of political psychologists. Political psychologists examine the foundations, dynamics, and effects of political behaviour by using cognitive and social theories. Their findings allow us to view the political landscape from a completely different perspective — one that, at times, can be rather eye-opening.

For instance, a study of 82 people performed by political and neuroscientists at the University of Exeter and the University of California, San Diego found that American liberals and conservatives use different parts of their brains when assessing risks.

Liberals had a high level of activity in the portion of the brain associated with self-awareness, social cues, addiction, emotional processing, and empathy. Conservatives weighed risk in the area of the brain that aids in survival, including reacting to violations of personal space and controlling social interaction, fear, and aggression.

Survival is important. So is self-awareness and compassion.

Another study found that while people living in liberal countries were happier on average than those in less liberal countries, individually, conservatives were happier than liberals no matter where they lived. The study went on to say that conservative people report higher subjective well-being (SWB) because they ignore or justify many of the factors that otherwise might negatively influence them, such as unemployment, inequality, and inconsistent health care and education. Conversely, liberals are more distraught by what they see as intrinsic societal problems because they have “greater empathy for those experiencing adverse conditions.”

The study’s lead author, Dr. Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University explains the results:

“Liberal governments tend to do more to shield citizens against certain hardships, such as unemployment and poverty, which can make people feel happier overall. On the other hand, conservatives rate their well-being higher than liberals because conservatives more readily support and rationalize the status quo, thus, believing that socioeconomic hardships are a result of individual shortcomings.”

How Can We Change as a Society?

Our world is vastly different to the one experienced by previous generations. Thanks to the internet, social media, and the ready availability of information, even the most local of problems becomes global in an instant. Despite society having acknowledged this fundamental shift, education has yet to catch up.

Rote memorization is no longer important. Instead, children need to be learning how to welcome the perspective of others. Forging and navigating relationships has become a key skill in the business world, as it’s essential to work collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries, and creatively addressing problems at their root.

We can shape young children to be changemakers. All we have to do is treat empathy/compassion as being as important as literacy. This can be done via democratic education, wherein students are taught how to be a voice for social change through open communication, effective problem-solving for “real world” problems, empathy/compassion in looking at issues from multiple angles, and consensus-building in creating solutions that work for everyone.

As for those of us that have already reached adulthood, training in emotional intelligence (EI) can help us get in touch with our compassionate nature. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify your emotions, recognize what they mean, and realize how they affect the people around you. EI also relates to your perception of others. By understanding their perception of the situation and how they feel, you can manage the relationship more effectively.

Final Thoughts

Being truly empathetic/compassionate means looking at someone who’s going through something you never have, and saying, “I understand why you’re hurting. I choose to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”

Society’s problems are so large that they cannot be solved by one person. We need to embrace empathy/compassion so we can better understand and respect the people around us, and motivating ourselves to build something better together.

As James Dawes said:

“Empathy — our ability to feel for others — is at the heart of what it means to be a human. Empathy morally improves me. Empathy gives meaning to my life. Empathy is the driver of historical progress and our best hope for the future.”