Empathy is what sets human beings apart from all other creatures.  Whales may have bigger brains and mosquitoes may be more prolific but no other creatures are able to put themselves in the shoes of others and experience how they might feel.  Empathy is basic to effective persuasion.

Neuroscience has proven this to be true in recent years through the use of the fMRI (The functional Magnetic Resonance  Imaging  technology).  Human beings are born, with very rare exceptions, with the mirror neurons in the brain that enable us to experience, at an emotional level, the hopes, fears and emotional reactions of others.  That results in caring about the experiences of others and that has profound social and political outcomes.

Empathy and Persuasion

Now that doesn’t mean that empathy can’t be suppressed by various kinds of conditioning.   If people are convinced from childhood that they should be thinking only of self, they may operate in a decidedly non-empathic manner.  And a more primitive personal trait of self preservation may overcome empathy in a life threatening situation, either real or imagined.   This characteristic of self preservation can be expanded by conditions to demonstrate that people should think strongly about self interest and reject empathy.   The tendency then is to believe that thinking in a “self interest” way is the “rational” way to think, unemotionally.   Not true.

This is a hard sell!  But there is a fundamental difference between empathic thinking and self interest thinking that has important implications  for ethical  political and economic thought.

Since empathy is so strongly ingrained in our genetic makeup, persuading and influencing people is best centered on the idea of caring for one another.  If that is framed in the correct way it will overpower the self interest approach.   But we have to understand that in order for the message to be convincing andeffective it has to connect at an emotional level.  Neuroscience has confirmed what great thinkers and artists have always known.  Human beings make decisions in the subconscious at a “feeling level” and then try to justify their decision on the basis of objective evidence: facts statistics, quotations, examples, expert opinion and logic and reason etc.  The problem is that, in spite of scientific evidence, most people refuse to believe that they have made the decision at an emotional level based on their long held, belief systems.

The Emotional Brain

But let’s see how this happens using our knowledge of how the brain works.  While facts matter, it is hard to get through the maze of long held ideas and get a person or a group to listen and at least critically accept a viewpoint different than their own.   We know that logic and reason will not reach them, especially if it is presented straight on.  So we need to connect with them at an emotional level.  How to do that? There are two major areas to consider here.  You start with telling stories.  There are many variables in what makes a story successful.  The main issue for us at this point is to concentrate on the second major factor and that is word choice.   Just as stories can be powerful persuaders (Jesus Christ converted half the known world to Christianity with stories) choice of words can make all the difference.  Words as well as stories can stir the emotions and let in new feelings and perceptions.  Now that doesn’t mean that this knowledge will always be used in the interests of human kind!  But if human beings are going to survive and prevail it will be necessary for them the use the knowledge of the brain to make survival possible.   And we hope that empathy will lead the human race strongly in the right directions.

But let’s talk about the stumbling blocks along the way to the future.  As mentioned, the biggest problem is to get people to believe that you have to reach people at an emotional level in order to persuade and influence them.  In spite of the fact that people don’t choose their love interests on the basis of logic and reason nor do nations and people go to war on a “rational” basis they still believe that humans “think” their way through the decision making process.  George Lakoff, the eminent cognitive scientist from Cal Berkley, talks about how family shapes our belief systems.  He explains self interest oriented people on the basis that the family that the people grew up in was headed by a strict father who made almost all the decisions and punished “bad behavior” while protecting the members of the family from all the forces to be afraid of “out there”!  Right and wrong, heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys are easy to identify and it is important to be on the side of “good” as defined by the strict father.  Fear, either real or imagined then, creates “rational” or self interest thinking.

Family Makes Politics

People who had a nurturing family saw decision making being done by both parents.  Trust and empathy were the guiding lights.  There is the idea that good behavior should be modeled by the parents and freedom should be carefully given to the children as they mature.  The emphasis is on caring for members of the family and those outside that immediate circle, as well.

That is an oversimplified version of the kinds of families that we might recognize and most families are going to be a blend of these two “opposites”.  The point is that the sum total of our experiences in life will determine, to a major extent, our views of how things should be!  We build our values and ethics as we go along and we apply them to new events and ideas as we try to make some sense of life.

Pyschos Lack Empathy

But this all relates to empathy.   We see that empathy can be suppressed by influences that see self interest as the only “rational” explanation for human behavior.   They see personal power, greed and selfishness as the motivators of positive actions.  Classical economics is based on that premise.  “Pursue wealth, think only of self”!  And yet this denies the most basic of human qualities.  So we hope people, when faced with a choice, will choose the outcome that looks the most empathic, given half a chance!  That is important when you are choosing stories and words to express yourself and trying to influence and persuade.

So the case can be made that if you are not guided by empathy, it means that you are off the rails!  The temptation is to think that most of these people who are traders on Wall Street are psychotic or at least sociopathic.   But they are not alone.  They seem to be everywhere!  In that sense, “abnormal” behavior is easy to find.  Still it is possible to reach most people at the empathy level even if they are Scalia or McCain, on certain issues.  And that is point.  You have to find the place where you can find common ground and build trust and a relationship there.  But you have to use language and stories to find the areas of empathy that will help you connect with the person you want to persuade.  And we must acknowledge that most of our interaction with others, and especially with friends and family, involves persuasion and influence.  In a larger sense we are all politicians, in one circumstance or another.

In conclusion, it is vitally important to realize that empathy lies in the brain of almost every human being and that is what makes us human.  It might be suppressed to a greater or lesser degree in all of us but we are all vulnerable in some small way to an empathic approach if it is done artfully.  We must be careful not to think of heroes and villains!  There are no perfect people (except those who are reading this and agreeing with it, of course!) and we need to be able to reach the humanity within all of us in order to lead and make it possible for us to give a sense of moral force to the empathy within all the people we care about.


According to dictionary.com, a psychopath is “a person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.”

According to dictionary.com, a sociopath is “a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.”

“Democrats’ language tends to derive from the leaden jargon of academia, while the Republicans’ language comes from the world of advertising and PR. One party goes for the cerebral cortex (with minimal success), while the other goes for the solar plexus.”



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