[This post is part of a series on empathy gaps. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
As a final note on empathy gaps, I wanted to note a few examples of empathy gaps — using them, observing them in others, and observing them in yourself.
Researchers normally present empathy gaps as problems. I like to think of them as a part of life like any other. We can use the effect to help us.
Teenager egg-carrying exercise
I remember a high school assignment for students to carry an egg with them everywhere for a week or a month. Eggs, of course, are fragile, so you have to take care of them. The goal is to get students who might think about having babies as teenagers to realize the incredible, non-stop, inescapable responsibility in raising a child.
Since teenagers’ exposure to the responsibility of raising a child is usually otherwise fleeting and involves doting and having fun, this exercise overcomes the empathy gap between teenagers’ common exposure to child-rearing and actual child-rearing.
Woody Allen’s comedy movie Bananas involves a revolutionary leader overthrowing a dictator of a Latin American country. He wants to reform the government, but when the revolution succeeds and he finds himself in a position of power, he can’t stop himself from abusing the power.
While the movie is fictional and funny, we know the pattern. Someone outside a system wants to change it. What influenced others to comply with that system may influence them too if they haven’t prepared themselves for the empathy gap.
I use this fictional example for two reasons. First movie is funny. Second, in the scene where the revolutionary turns into a dictator, you can almost see the effect of the empathy gap as it hits him. YouTube has an excerpt of the silly scene. Sorry, but China’s government blocks YouTube so I can’t link to it, but you can find it easily enough. I’ll link to it when I get access to the rest of the web.
Using them to your advantage
Going to the gym
A friend once told me, “I usually spend an hour or two at the gym, but I never go to the gym to work out for an hour. I go to the gym just to walk in the door. Once I’m there, I figure I might as well do a full work out. If I planned to go for two hours, I never would.”
In other words, he uses empathy gaps to his advantage. At home he never feels like working out, but he knows once at the gym he’ll stay until he’s done. So he doesn’t think about how much time he’ll stay. He just gets himself in the front door.
He put into words what many of us do.
Starting an exercise set
I do the same thing with my twice-daily burpees (what’s a burpee?). Twenty is a lot of burpees to do. When I start each set, I only decide to do the first. Once started, I feel like finishing the rest, using an empathy gap to motivate 95% of my set and willpower for only the first 5%.
It’s hard to leave a warm hotel room to go out in the cold, but I know once I start skiing I’ll love it. When I put my ski clothing on in the morning, I’m not even thinking about going out in the cold. I just do it to make it easier to get outside.
Once I do my first run of the day, I know I’ll ski until dark.
Again, I use willpower to get out the door, where I know an empathy gap with carry me through the rest of the day.
Avoiding food I don’t want to eat
Sometimes I don’t want to eat something unhealthy but I know it tastes good. If it’s near me, it’s hard not to think about it. Even if I could avoid eating it with just willpower, it’s distracting. I could use my mental efforts on something else.
As hard as it is to avoid eating it, if I move the food out of my environment, the temptation decreases or disappears.
Like many people, I use empathy gaps to remove temptation.
Getting rid of stuff
I wrote about effective practices I used to stop hoarding stuff and find freedom from simplifying my life, especially by decreasing my amount of material stuff in my post, “The 3 best tricks to get rid of things.”
Germans under Nazis
Reading about her afterward, I read this passage she wrote in 1964 about Germans participating in Nazism. Today Nazism is synonymous with the worst monsters ever, but millions of people participated. Her quote reveals the empathy gap between people participating with the system and those outside it as well as the same people after the war ended. Could everyone participating all have been monsters?
The adults of Germany, who knew Nazism and in their millions cheered and adored Hitler until he started losing, have performed a nation-wide act of amnesia; no one individually had a thing to do with the Hitlerian regime and its horrors. The young realize this cannot be true, yet one by one, each explains how guiltless his father was; somebody else’s father must have been doing the dirty work. Santayana observed that if a man forgets his past he is condemned to relive it. Germans trained in obedience and dedicated to moral whitewashing are not a new people, nor are they reliable partners for anyone else.
If they were monsters, were they monsters before Hitler’s rise to power? If not, what changed them? If they weren’t monsters, how could they commit such monstrosities? To me these are among the most important questions on totalitarianism and even government. By the time the Nazis had power, stopping them was too late. So what circumstances led to motivating millions of people that way?
If the regular Joe’s of Germany in the 30s weren’t monsters, they were regular humans too. There seems to be a big empathy gap between ourselves and those living in Germany in the 1930s.
Some young people freak out about getting old. People in their 20s are afraid that their lives won’t be worth living in their 50s. They can’t imagine what people at that age do, since older people can’t do what they consider worth doing.
They suffer from an empathy gap. They don’t understand the values of a 50-year-old.
The good news for them is that people in their 20s don’t turn into 50-year-olds. People in their 20s turn into people in their 30s and so on. Time forces them to overcome the empathy gap as their environments slowly change — mainly their peers age too.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees