Jul 12, 2018

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't work

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't work. At least, it doesn't work for giving you a better sense of what they are feeling, according to several recent psychological studies. (What works better? Just asking them).

But is this why there has been a boom in empathy experiments the last few years? Are we really trying to know the other, or just care about the other? Do empathy experiments work for helping us at least care more about the suffering of the people we're pretending to be? I am also dubious about their effectiveness in this regard.

Do we really need to know what it's like to be lost at sea to care about refugees whose boats are wrecked on the way to Europe? There was such an outpouring of support for the boys stuck in the cave in Thailand, yet I assume it is an experience almost none of us have had or have pretended to have.

I think the issue when there is a lack of caring and solidarity is not that we can't imagine the experience, but that we other the people having it. We distance ourselves from them in some way. So here again what might work better than putting yourself in someone else's shoes is just to ask them about their experience and feelings. Hearing their personal stories can help us connect around our common humanity.

Some ways of sharing stories are more effective at building solidarity than others. More on that later. I just survived my first year teaching on the tenure track and am slowly getting back to writing on this blog.