Empathy is not a buzzword: The biological roots of why empathy is here to stay

Last night it happened again.
I was watching a movie, and a swell of strings played some beautiful minor symphony crescendo-ing at the perfect moment for the tears to pour from my eyes. 
I wasn’t sad. 
I wasn’t the protagonist of the movie who had just said goodbye to a loved one. 
I was perfectly safe and warm and contentedly snuggled up with my beloved dog. 
And yet, the emotional response I had was visceral. I felt the character’s experience at that moment as if it were my own and I was grateful to have Ben & Jerry nearby to comfort me. 

Sometimes we all need a good cry...

Sometimes we all need a good cry...

It’s often in these, most unlikely of moments that the super nerd in me comes out.

How on earth was this level of empathy ever a useful adaptation for humans to have evolved, and why has it become the latest buzzword in business? 

As humans, we are often quick to identify a false sense of superiority over the rest of the animal world. When people do immoral and disgraceful things, we dehumanize them by call them “animals” and “inhumane.” But I’d like to posit that our own language requires revision. You do not need to dig very deeply in our evolutionary history to uncover empathetic roots that would put most humans to shame. Consider for evidence an early experiment in which rhesus monkeys were trained to pull a chain to deliver a food reward. When the monkeys were shown another monkey subjected to a shock each time the chain was pulled, nearly all the monkeys stopped delivering the reward to themselves, including one monkey that went hungry for over 12 days rather than be responsible for delivering a shock to another. 


Famed biologist E.O.Wilson recognized that humans aren’t special in behaving in ways deemed “culturally appropriate.”

...[G]enes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.

In other words, we aren’t behaving better than (or even as moral as) monkeys because we are culturally more sophisticated. At the root of all our behaviors is some predisposition that nods to a biological benefit.

Empathy likely served our ancestors in two ways. 

The first was the recognition that we as a species, are very interdependent upon others for survival. Cooperating to produce healthy, emotionally stable, and trusting group mates would be to the benefit of all. Demonstrating our willingness to “not shock the other monkey” might be the very act that saved us when the tables were turned.  

Effective cooperation requires being exquisitely in tune with the emotional states and goals of others.
— Frans de Waal

Secondarily, given humans' highly dependent and vulnerable offspring, ancestral females, in particular, needed to develop a system of sensitivity to these demands to assure their offspring’s survival. Today, modern females still demonstrate higher measures of empathy than males, even when cultural expectations regarding gender roles are taken into consideration. This may be one reason that females are subject to glass cliffs - being thrown into precarious positions of leadership during an organizational crisis. 

My opinion is that empathy isn’t just another buzzword. As we become globally more connected and interdependent in business, the traits that allowed women to help our offspring survive in the ancestral environment will be the same traits that empower today's companies to thrive. 

Empathy is fragile. Biologically, we are drawn to it under certain circumstances, like the cry of a youngster in distress. The challenge becomes clinging to that same powerful lens when our biology tries to override the empathy switch (i.e., in dealing with outsiders or communities or opinions that are different from our own.). 

Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us. Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.
— Brené Brown

As we plow headlong into the future, perhaps we all need to take a timeout, watch a good movie, and thank the biology of our past for the incredible ability to generate emotional connections that will propel us all forward.