Charles Bell: Anatomy of the Brain c.1802. Photo: Shaheen Lakhan / Flickr
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We don't really understand empathy, but we know business could do with a little more

Our understanding of empathy is pretty limited, but many figures are calling for change. Corporate culture is beginning to recognise the need to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Business buzzwords are changing. Pervasive gibberish like “mission-critical optimisation” and “blue-skies thinking” is in decline; instead we’re witnessing the rise – sorry, “phase-in” – of terms like social innovation and sustainability. Corporations now want to show you not just that they care, but that they really care. Empathy is the latest addition to the management dictionary.

There’s a huge profit motive galvanising this change. Belinda Parmar, author of The Empathy Era, thinks we’re on the cusp of a corporate revolution. “Empathy is the key to profit,” she says. “It is a natural social resource that has, for years, been left untapped by an outdated corporate model, hampered and trussed up by its systemising protocol. The corporate world is in need of rehabilitation. It needs to redress its empathy deficit.”

But what actually is it? Derived from the Greek words em (in) and pathos (feeling), empathy was first introduced to English in 1909 by psychologist Edward Titchener in an attempt to translate the rather more aggressive-sounding German equivalent, Einfühlungsvermögen. The idea of “feeling-in” means the ability to understand and share other people’s emotions.

How this works is another question. The neuroscience behind emotions is notoriously complex but one idea that Parmar – who was recently knighted for services to women in technology – cites is the “Empathising-Systemising (E-S) Theory”, proposed by psychologist and autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen. He suggests the male brain is naturally more inclined to systemising – looking for underlying sets of rules and patterns – than to empathising, a trait more common in women.

Based on a questionnaire designed to gauge your “Emotional Quotient”, people with Autism Spectrum Disorders are categorised to represent the “extreme male brain” – sometimes possessing huge talents in maths and physics but struggling with social interaction. The gendered terms represent the frequency with which the characteristics are present in men and women, but Baron-Cohen suggests both genders can have the ‘other’ brain.

It’s still very much a theory – we haven’t, for instance, found any neurological differences using MRI scans to support the idea of empathising or systemising brains, which means much of the behaviour may be down to social conditioning. But it does go some way to explaining other anomalies, like the higher prevalence of autism in boys than girls. Separately, the E-S theory is also a better predictor than gender of who goes on to study STEM subjects.

It sounds a bit pseudo-sciencey but there aren't many better theories out there: empathy research still has a long way to go. Despite this, even these preliminary findings have important ramifications for businesses. Parmar claims systemisers tend to be rewarded for their ability to optimise, particularly in male-dominated sectors like science and technology which are infamous for their lack of empathy. This leads to a culture with little time for feelings, "restricting imagination and creativity in the workplace". You can see why the management is getting worried.

And it isn’t just business which lacks the ability to empathise. Before becoming president, Barack Obama described the great need for compassion in times of economic crisis. "There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he said. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

He’s not alone. Even our politicians are beginning to realise the need to – at the very least – appear empathic. Ed Miliband referred to empathy seven times in a recent speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects as he claimed it was one of the “most underrated virtues” in politics. According to the Sunday Times the Labour leader has been meeting up with Baron-Cohen in an attempt to better connect with the public. Political stunt it may be – but if it works, then empathy might be more than just a buzzword.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.