How does empathy influence creativity?
Getting people to feel, not just think, is essential to design work. Luckily, we’ve got empathy on our side.
Are you feeling what we’re feeling? Chances are yes—at least in part. Scientific research from a wide range of fields has helped us learn a ton about how empathy works, like where it happens in the brain and how to cultivate it. Taking others’ perspectives and caring about their needs can pave the way to creativity and boost problem-solving. Intriguingly, there’s recent evidence showing that, for some artists and scientists, not all creativity is linked to empathy.
Commentary from the d.school
A scholar’s perspective
Empathy begins with attention. Creativity does too. In both cases, you pay attention to the data you take in. In Latin, attention means to “stretch toward.” When you empathize with someone, you're stretching outside of yourself and stretching into that person's world. This empathy then links to problem-solving because you must first decide not only what the problem is, but who has the problem.
In philosophy, the most important thing you can do is frame the problem well—the same is true in design. If you don't frame the problem well, you'll never get the solution right. But defining the problem is some of the hardest work. In design, you empathize before you define. It is critical because creativity is about trying on different concepts in order to solve a particular challenge or problem. There is value in getting different conceptions of ideas on the table, then you can see if everyone is looking at the same ideas in the same way. That leaves room to discover that the value actually might lie in how we overlay these individual systems of thought. That’s where good problem framing begins.
The Functional Architecture of Human Empathy
Jackson Decety in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 2004
Your brain reserves a special place for empathy
This paper helped us understand how empathy works by pointing to the different places empathy lives and helps unpack its parts: self-awareness, “mental flexibility," and “emotional regulation”—each of which we can map to specific processes in the brain.
The Neuroscience of Empathy: Progress, Pitfalls, and Promise
Jamil Zaki & Kevin Ochsner in Nature America, 2012
Empathy beyond the brain: a motivation to take action
This paper explains two takes on empathy. First, sharing the emotions of another person and second, reasoning through what another person might think. The review explores an emerging area of research on a “desire to help” called prosocial motivation. When it comes to design, we can consider how to activate these methods of empathy through how we plan research activities and share our findings.
The Necessity of Others is the Mother of Invention: Intrinsic and Prosocial Motivations, Perspective Taking, and Creativity
Adam Grant and James Berry in Academy of Management Journal, 2011
Thinking about others helps you generate—and choose—better ideas
Researchers wondered how considering others might aid in creativity. Experiments with employees linked innovation to a focus on others’ needs, facilitated by what's called “perspective taking," a deliberate effort to understand what others need. By considering a wide range of people, such as colleagues, managers, and customers, the employees could develop more novel ideas and choose the better ones. A bonus: prosocial motivation, the desire to help, guides us to think of new ideas and pulls us through to persist in creative tasks!
Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons
Marco Iacoboni in Annual Review of Psychology, 2009
Imitation may be the sincerest form of empathy: how our brains mirror others
When we watch someone in action, motor neurons in our brain activate in response. This phenomenon is called “neural mirroring.” Findings in social psychology studies have shown that imitation can create a pathway for empathy. This paper explains how imitation helps us “access and understand the minds of others.”
Empathy-Building Interventions: A Review of Existing Work and Suggestions for Future Directions
Erika Weisz and Jamil Zaki in Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, 2017
Empathizing: still a work in progress
This review gathers ways to boost empathy, through “empathy interventions.” The article shares a rich list of experience-based techniques, such as imagining the lives of others, meditation-based compassion, and role playing in new situations (e.g., medical students experiencing a campus in a wheelchair). There’s also communication-based empathy: using conversation to better connect. The authors suggest there’s room for a new approach: teaching people how to want to empathize.
More Is not Always Better: The Differentiated Influence of Empathy on Different Magnitudes of Creativity
Sven Form and Christian Kaernbacha in Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 2018
How empathy influences creativity: deciding when empathy might matter
Researchers are exploring empathy’s influence on creativity. This review shares results from studies, painting a picture of an emerging set of evidence with varied results. Findings to date suggest that empathic behaviors or mindsets link to everyday creativity.
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