The Empathy Formula

For over a year now, I've been working with a remarkable group of people at Ashoka who believe empathy is the foundational skill we need in order to become effective changemakers in modern society -- and who are bold/quixotic enough to envision a world in which one day, every child learns to master it as readily as s/he masters the ability to read and write.

The challenges associated with an idea this big are myriad. Public education in America is organized around content knowledge, not skills. It defines success via the prism of intellectual, not emotional, growth. It survives via compulsion, not commitment. Any effort to elevate a "soft skill" like empathy must unfold within a larger culture that aspires, tragicomically, to be Bruce Willis-hard. And any adult who already sees the value of nurturing empathetic children needs useful guidance in how to actually do it.

It's a tall order. But Ashoka may have found a way to diffuse all those challenges in a single stroke.

As it turns out, there's a formula we can use to explain how people master empathy, even if no one's ever described it that way before. And best of all, it's got a familiar ring to it:

E = EC².

This "Empathy Formula" first emerged out of a conversation several years ago between Emotional Intelligence author Dan Goleman and behavioral scientist Paul Ekman. As Goleman describes it, the two men were discussing FEMA's feckless response to Hurricane Katrina, and trying to clarify what went wrong, and how the full range of human capacity could be activated in solving our most intractable problems in the future.

What Goleman and Ekman mapped out -- in a little-read blog post from 2007 -- was three different ways a person can convey empathy. The first is "cognitive empathy," or the act of knowing how another person feels. This is the first stage of becoming empathetic, and while it may be helpful in motivating people or running for elective office, it also has a dark side if it exists in isolation: narcissism and sociopathic behavior, to name a few.

The second is "emotional empathy," or the capacity to physically feel the emotions of another. Until recently, we were at a loss to explain how, or even why, we do this. But now scientists have located the process in a set of special cells in the brain called mirror neurons. These cells are what help us recognize and understand the deepest motives and needs of our fellow human beings. As with cognitive empathy, however, emotional empathy can have troublesome consequences if applied in isolation. As Goleman writes, "One downside of emotional empathy occurs when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions can be seen in the psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout. The purposeful detachment cultivated by those in medicine offers one way to inoculate against burnout. But the danger arises when detachment leads to indifference, rather than to well-calibrated caring."

That leads to the third and final part of the formula -- "compassionate empathy", which is what occurs when we combine the previous two in the name of acting upon what we think and feel. This was the missing ingredient in FEMA's response to Katrina. Is it possible that it's also the key to helping us unpack not just how to walk in another's shoes, but also how to act compassionately on their, and our, behalf?

What would happen if schools were more mindful of this Empathy Formula? Instead of offering disconnected but well-intentioned efforts to help children think, feel or act, would adults start to help children think, feel and act? Would communities be increasingly populated with people who were neither narcissistic nor emotionally empty? And would the most pressing problems of our day -- from energy to education to enlivening our civic life -- be analyzed, internalized, and diffused by a new generation of changemakers?

Ashoka certainly thinks so. What do you think?