Book Review: The Empathy Gap

Posted on November 19, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , |

The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society by J.D. Trout was written in early 2009. The title intrigued me as I was looking for clues about why large-scale organizational change is so difficult.

Despite training and experience implementing change in large organizations for most of my 30-year career, I have become discouraged about the probability for success in such endeavors. Many times I’ve seen good-intentioned, intelligent people undertake difficult and complex problems… rarely have I seen success. Most of the time, there is big fanfare announcing a grand change program, followed by large outlays of time and money with an eventual closure of the program a few months or years later. Sometimes there is a low-key “post-mortem” to understand why the project failed to meet its objectives. More often, even this rudimentary step is foregone and the project is quietly buried. Sometimes, colleagues reminisce about the project while sharing war stories. But for the most part, such experiences are generally forgotten — organizations rarely learn from these failures.

A recent experience with a large-scale change project at the State of Oregon brought all this frustration to a sharp focus for me. As of this writing, the project has been underway for almost two years and has yet to produce results in line with its promise. The effort has spent millions of taxpayer dollars and has been tied up in an endless cycle of analysis and justification, quiet resistance and navel gazing (a technical term referring to spending excess energy understanding how to work such that one loses sight of why the work was initiated.)

What is an Empathy Gap?

  1. Context rules. A person who has direct and personal knowledge of a situation is more likely to understand its uniqueness and the value of options than someone who has only studied or read about it. For instance, Trout sites a study showing US Congressmen who have daughters are more likely to vote favorably for women’s legislation than those without such a reference point.
  2. Proximity matters. A need that is close by is much more likely to capture our empathy than one that is very far away. We are more likely to feed a hungry person at our door than send money half way around the globe to help thousands or millions of starving people in a place about which we’ve never heard.
  3. Immediacy matters. A need that is far in the future is easy to ignore compared to one that is immediately at hand. We are more likely to put off acting green (as in environmental responsibility) due to present inconvenience because the inevitable consequence is a long time off. Indeed, if one listens to the global warming naysayers, its inevitability is even uncertain. Action is more likely to be demanded when crisis occurs.
  4. Line of Sight. If we cannot personally see a connection between our behavior and an outcome for a group of individuals, despite intellectual suggestions, it is hard to get us to act. That is, we lack the empathy to act.

Social Engineering

Trout’s answer is a version of data-driven social engineering. He admits the term sounds frightening, even Orwellian in its implications. Indeed an internet search reveals social engineering as a security scam for getting information from people without them knowing – phishing is an example. If you can get over the negative connotations of the term, he explains how groups in a society make bad choices because they may only have bad options from which to choose. His version of social engineering involves studying situations objectively, collecting and analyzing data to identify the “best” outcomes and designing large-scale systems and programs to limit choices. Only options in the best interest of the target population should be allowed.

Sounds devious. Only if you have devious intentions. Trout uses an easy-to-understand example of social engineering — helmet laws. There is ample data around survivability for users and non-users. The reality is harsh, more people die when not wearing a helmet when an accident occurs. This is already common knowledge.

But isn’t wearing a helmet a personal choice? Only partly. Sure, the motorcyclist riding without a helmet gets the joy of feeling the wind in his hair. To be sure, it is more likely a helmet-less rider will arrive safely at his destination than he will be in an accident. However, when an accident does occur, he is 17 times more likely to die and many more times likely to end up in an emergency room. At that point, it is no longer personal. If the rider has no insurance, the public picks up the expense of treatment — hospitals do not turn away insurance-less trauma patients, that would be even more tragic! Even if he does have insurance, the pool of insureds bare most of the expense for his treatment. If he dies, his survivors suffer tremendously. Either way, the life of anyone else involved in the incident is likely to be impacted as well.

But what about freedom of choice? This does remove some choice, but only when that choice is not in the common good. Trout predicts objections from a Libertarian audience on this point. Trout argues convincingly that the rights of individuals of a society should not take precedence over the rights of the larger society.

Build a System With Only Good Choices

Frequently throughout the book, Trout returns to the problems of poverty and world hunger. Certainly, two of the biggest problems of our times. Pulling from the observations around the empathy gap, those who have not experienced poverty often think of it as a “personal” failing or choice. “Those people are lazy.” Or, “They deserve what they get.” Trout’s data is convincing that people in low socio-economic status often lack good choices. Using the concepts outlined in the book for social engineering, Trout proposes a system that restricts programs — like debt instruments — to only those options that work in favor of the individual.

What This Means to Me

I have been a student of systems thinking ever since the early 1990’s when I read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline (it was updated in 2006.) My favorite quote, “Every system is perfectly designed to generate the results it creates,” speaks to the lesson that good people in bad systems rarely succeed. Put together an imperfect or deeply flawed system (like the financial services market in the US) and throw in millions of unwary or naive borrowers and you end up with a global financial crisis.

Closer to home, if one can use data to design systems that create smart outcomes and limit the choices to those that are in their own best interest of the users and the organization, everyone comes out ahead.

I’m unsure when my next opportunity will come to apply what I’ve learned to a large-scale change project, but I intend to pull heavily from the content of this book when I do.

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