"On an intuitive level most of us understand the deep interconnection between identity and labor… ‘What do you do?’ has become as common a component of an introduction as the anachronistic ‘How do you do?’ once was—suggesting that our jobs are an integral part of our identity, not merely a way to make money…”
About 250 years ago, Adam Smith famously described the way observers might feel watching a tightrope walker. Even while standing on solid ground, our palms sweat and our hearts race as someone wobbles hundreds of feet in the air (you can test this out here). In essence, we experience this person’s state as our own.
Centuries later, this definition does a surprisingly good job at capturing scientific models of empathy. Evidence from across the social and natural sciences suggests that we take on others’ facial expressions, postures, moods, and even patterns of brain activity. This type of empathy is largely automatic. For instance, people imitate others’ facial expressions after just a fraction of a second, often without realizing they’re doing so. Mood contagion likewise operates under the surface. Therapists often report that, despite their best efforts, they take on patients’ moods, consistent with evidence from a number of studies.
UCLA research found people who derive their happiness from helping others have strong antibody genes, while people who get their kicks from self-gratification can suffer from low antiviral and antibody gene expression.
A new study using functional MRI shows that individuals diagnosed as psychopaths can turn off their empathy at will.
In the end, the research suggests that people with the psychological diagnosis can have the same areas of their brain activated as healthy individuals can. But the research does not go into whether the study's psychpathic participants could actually feel empathy on demand, rather than just regions of their brains being activated. "Psychopathy may not be so much the incapacity to empathize, but a reduced propensity to empathize, paired with a preserved capacity to empathize when required to do so," said Valeria Gazzola, one of the study's authors.
But never has empathy been so important. We live in an unprecedented era of accelerated and unpredictable change. I completely agree with Rifkin that "the empathic evolution of the human race and the profound ways it has shaped our development... will likely decide our fate as a species."
I wonder whether I can single out the development of empathy as the most important issue that underscores all other issues in the World Economic Forum's Survey on the Global Agenda? I would love to hear global leaders discuss that topic! And now, how to reframe my assignment to my Columbia MBAs?
Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Saїd Business School, University of Oxford
We had hired a new senior executive. Soon after settling in, he began to share his concerns with me. He was doing so, he assured me, only because he loved working for us, and he was looking out for the...
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