The Power of Outrospection – A 21st Century take on empathy

Written by Active Minds on Tuesday the 9th of July 2013.

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Active Minds first discovered Roman Krznaric (a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living) at The Idler Academy, talking about his then recent book, The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live Life. In his book Krznaric looks to the past for insight’s into life’s big questions including the subjects of work, money, love and empathy. And as empathy is such a large part of caring for someone with dementia, we were interested in a video short which expands Krznaric’s views on empathy and its place in 21st Century society.

This brilliant animated short by The RSA named, The Power of Outrospection, sketches out Krznaric’s views on the subject with him argueing the case for a societal change to something he calls ‘outrospection’, replacing the idea that introspection is how we get to know ourselves better and stating that “the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection, is empathy”.

“How can we expand our empathic potential? he asks.

Instead of empathy as a concept, he is curious as to how empathy can be a part of the art of living – a philosophy of life – helping people to be more creative thinkers, have better relationships and create human bonds that make life worth living.

But he also talks of social change. Radical social change. Even a “revolution of human relationships”.

He speaks of the two textbook definitions of empathy:

1) Affective Empathy – a mirrored response to another’s emotion

and

2) Cognitive Empathy – a “perspective empathy” which is about stepping into somebody else’s world and trying to understand the fears, beliefs and experiences that make them unique.

The latter, Krznaric says, can help us remove the blockages created by assumptions, prejudices and labels we so often make, and allows us to really see another’s individuality.

But “highly empathic people go beyond that” even, by “nurturing their curiosities about others”.

They also tend to be people who are sensitive listeners, good at understanding what somebody else’s needs are and, in conversations, make themselves vulnerable by sharing part of their own lives; making conversations a two-way dialogue.

He uses George Orwell, and his “empathic adventures”; trying to put himself in the shoes of others by deciding to go tramping (which lead to him writing his first full-length work Down and Out in Paris and London), as an example of someone who sought outrospection over introspection as a philosophy of life.

The act of outrospection, Krznaric says, expanded Orwell’s moral universe, made him a more compassionate person, cultivated a new curiosity in strangers, developed new friendships, and gave him new creative literary material.

Another example Kzarnic uses, to back up an idea he has that empathy can also be “a collective force”, are two grassroute projects which aim to get Palestinians and Israelis taking to one another – The Parents Circle which brings parents together from both sides who have lost a child/ children in the conflict, and “Hello Peace” a hotline for those who need someone to talk to which puts callers through to a person on the other side (an Israeli is put through to a Palestinian and vice versa).

He also uses a historical example of empathy being a collective force – the human rights movement which lead to the abolition of the slave trade in the 1780s was driven by a number of public educational events that gave people an idea as to what life was like for those in slavery, generating empathy and finally putting a stop to it.

Krznaric concludes that perhaps we should be “more adventurous with who we empathise with” suggesting that there could be, what he describes as, “Empathy Museums” – experiential and conversational public spaces where we might have a chance to go through others’ experiences such as sitting down in a sweatshop environment at a sewing machine all day making garments at pace, only to be paid 5p at the end of it.

Krznaric’s advice for the best way of bringing empathy into our everyday 21st Century lives is to value outrospection over introspection, to create a “revolution of human relationships” that he thinks we so desperately need.

Roman Krznaric is the author of four books and a founding faculty member of the inspirational academy, The School of Life, in London.