A reaffirmation of empathy

As someone interested in research, and as a human being, it’s probably fair to assume that you think empathy is a good thing.

But increasingly it has come in for questioning. Philosopher Paul Bloom recently called out its distorting effects on our judgement; the way it leads us to favour the individual over the majority, the way it appeals to emotion rather than reason. If we want to do good, he argues, we should exercise ‘rational compassion’.

The refugee crisis has made this debate more relevant than ever: should we follow our hearts and accept as many as we can, or is a more hard-headed approach, ultimately, the best solution for everyone?

While the debate rolls on, The Story 2017 – an annual conference celebrating stories and storytelling – provided several welcome reminders of the power of empathy. But one talk in particular stood out for me.   

Clara Westaway Gaggero, from design and innovation agency Special Projects, talked us through the steps she and her team went through to solve the knottiest of briefs: how to engage ‘old people’ with smart phones. After hanging out with them in their natural habitats (the bingo hall…the care home…) and listening to their experiences of technology, they realised that the common perception of old people as technological refuseniks simply wasn’t true; they wanted to harness the power of smart phones but they were falling at the first huddle – the ‘unboxing’.

Unlike you or I, older people don’t tear the phone out of the packaging and work it out for themselves. They actually read the instructions (I know…). If you’ve ever taken the time to read them for yourself, you would know that phone instructions are not the easiest to follow – hence so many older people are deterred.

Clara and her team focussed their energies on simplifying this part of journey and devised a dazzlingly simple and intuitive solution: a book in which each page represents a step in the set-up process, with the phone housed neatly inside. Check it out here to see it in all its glory.

With empathy at the heart of their approach, Special Projects arrived at a solution with potential to transform the lives of older people.  

Empathy may not be an unalloyed good where politics is concerned – and it is right that we contest its merits. But as a research tool, it is invaluable. Special Projects’ work with old people provides an inspiring reminder of that value.     

Woman legs in different shoes