Roman Krznaric, author on empathy and the art of living, discusses How to Start an Empathy Revolution at TEDxAthens 2013. Below is the full transcript of the TEDx Talk.
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Roman Krznaric – Author of Empathy, The Wonderbox and How to Find
We live in an age of hyper-individualism, an era in which an overdose of free-market culture and simplistic self-help, have led us to believe that the best way to lead the good life, and achieve human happiness, is to pursue our narrow self-interest, to follow our personal desires. In a way, the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ has become the leading question of our time. And I believe we urgently need an antidote. And that antidote is empathy.
But what is empathy? Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person, and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world. It’s about understanding where another person is really coming from.
Now, we all know that empathy makes a difference in our everyday relationships. You’ve probably had experiences where you’ve been arguing with your partner, or your husband or your wife and you thought to yourself, ‘I wish they just understood my point of view’. I wish they understood what I was feeling. What are you asking for there? Empathy, of course, right?
But empathy can do more than help in our relationships. Empathy can create radical social change. Empathy, I believe, can create a revolution, not one of those old-fashioned revolutions of new laws and institutions, public policies, but a revolution of human relationships. And we urgently need this revolution because of a growing global empathy deficit.
In the United States, for example, empathy levels have declined by nearly 50% over the last 40 years. The steepest decline has been in the last 10 years. At the same time, we have worldwide growing social divides. In two-thirds of western countries, the gap between rich and poor is greater today than it was in 1980. At the same time, over a billion people in the world are living on less than a dollar a day. Everywhere we turn, we see the conflicts caused by religious fundamentalism, ethnic tensions and anti-immigrant sentiments. We urgently need empathy to create the social glue to hold our societies together and to erode the toxic ‘Us vs Them’ mentality, that is the cause of so much conflict.
Now, there is good news, which is that, 98% of us, say the neuro-scientists, have the ability to empathize and step into somebody else’s shoes. Our brains are wired for empathy. We are Homo Empathicus. But very few of us have really reached our full empathic potential. And as a society, we haven’t yet really learned to harness the power of empathy, to create social and political transformation. That’s why I’d like to talk to you today about eight ideas which I think can create and start a global empathy revolution.
The first, is to train up the next generation. Empathy can be taught and learned. It can be learned just like riding a bike or learning to drive a car. It’s best to learn it when you’re young. The world’s greatest program for teaching empathy is the one you can see on the screen here which is called the Roots of Empathy. It began in Canada, in 1995. Over half a million children around the world have now done it. It’s spread to many countries. A unique thing about it is that the teacher is a baby. A real live baby comes into the classroom, every few weeks, the same baby for a whole year. And the children sit around the baby, and they start talking about the baby. What’s the baby thinking, what’s the baby feeling, why is the baby crying, why is the baby laughing? They’re trying to empathize, step into the shoes of the child. And they then use that activity to start thinking about empathy on a wider scale. What’s it like to be bullied or persecuted in the playground?
Roots of Empathy has incredible impact. It increases levels of social cooperation and sharing amongst the pupils. It reduces bullying in the playground. It even increases academic attainment. That’s why I think every child should have the right to do programs like ‘Roots of Empathy’. I hope that my five year old twins get to do it too, because they are the next generation of change-makers.
But we can’t wait around 20 years. For these change-makers to emerge, we need to become more empathic ourselves, and lead the empathic revolution as individuals, as adults. That’s why we need to develop an ambitious imagination. The latest psychology research tells us, that if you mindfully focus on somebody else’s feelings and needs, that is, empathize with them, that increases your moral concern with them and can motivate you to take action on their behalves.
Now one of the greatest empathic adventurers in human history, Mahatma Gandhi, pointed out that we need to be rather ambitious about whose shoes we decide to step into. He famously said, in a quote called Gandhi’s Talisman, he said “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self is too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest man who you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away”.
Just imagine if that empathic message was on the desk of every banking titan or media baron, or even on your own. But Gandhi also pointed out that we need to push ourselves even further, that we need to empathize not just with the poor and the powerless, but also step into the shoes of our enemies. Gandhi was a Hindu who said, “I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew”. I think we all need to learn to empathize with our enemies, to increase our levels of tolerance, to make us wiser people and also to develop smarter strategies of social change.
But how does a Muslim get to meet a Hindu, or vice versa, how do you people here today get to meet people who are different from you, and step into their shoes? Well that’s why we need to do something else in the empathy revolution, which is to spark our curiosity. Now the problem is, that most of have lost the curiosity that we once had as children. We walk past strangers every day, without knowing what’s going on in their minds. We hardly know our neighbors. I believe that we need to cultivate curiosity about strangers in order to challenge our prejudices and stereotypes, because we so often make snap-judgments about people. I believe that the thoughts in other people’s heads, is the great darkness that surrounds us. And we need to use cultivating conversations with strangers to penetrate that darkness.