Yawn and the whole world yawns with you?


In week two of the Creative Economy MA we watched the RSA animated version of Jeremy Rifkin’s talk on ‘The Empathic Civilisation’.

Shortly after it began I started yawning. Not because the presentation bored me. Far from it! The yawning arose because I was thinking about yawning – or, more specifically ‘contagious yawning’. Rifkin was talking about the discovery of mirror neurons. These same neurons are also thought to be responsible for the contagion of yawns. It is these mirror neurons that Rifkin opines are responsible for empathy. In 2007 research by the University of Leeds suggested that the susceptibility to the contagious yawn is actually symptom of a high level of social empathy. Interestingly the research also noted that engineering students were less likely to yawn than the psychology students. Thus, inferring that the latter students have a higher level of social empathy. I wonder how creative and artistic students would fare? I must remember these considerations as empathy plays such a fundamental role in design thinking. It highlights the importance of collaboration in design processes – ensuring the user’s emotional, practical and concious needs are all evaluated.

However, I was surprised to note that Rifkin was unaware that research by Birckbeck University, London has already suggested that dogs have the capacity to empathise with humans. If one yawns in front of a dog, the contagion can jump between species and the dog will yawn too. The reason for the dog yawning was put down to a ‘primitive’ level of social empathy. So are dogs more empathic than engineers? All this talk of yawning may have you starting to yawn too. Who are you empathising with? Me? The dogs? Or, are you just bored?

Another aspect of the presentation that I had a problem with was Rifkin’s suggestion that we need to all start thinking like an extended family. He says that effectively that Y-chromosomal Adam and Database Woman are the Adam and Eve from whom we are all descended; and since we are all related we really should all just get along. I don’t see this as a good premise for global harmony. Consider Adam and Eve’s first sons, Cain and Able!

The third disparity I encountered was sandwiched between these issues. Rifkin points out that we now have the technology to think viscerally as a family. Rifkin then goes on to use the earthquake in Haiti as an example of how within three hours the ‘entire human race was in empathic embrace’ coming to the aid of Haiti. So why was this same embrace not extended to Pakistan when the floods struck seven months later? Did the entire human race give an apathetic shrug; a disinterested yawn?

The American Red Cross ran a text based donation campaign for Haiti that raised $32 million within days, generating as much as $200,000 per hour. A similar campaign by the Red Cross for Pakistan yielded just $10,000, about 0.03 per cent of what it raised for Haiti. Why? Donor fatigue? Were the images displayed in the media insufficiently emotive? Or, do the tribal blood ties, religious connections and national loyalties of our ancestors still run true?

I would contend that we have never truly ‘detribalised’ as Rifkin suggests. Has he never been to a soccer match? I suspect that progressions in technology simply allow us to form new coalitions and renew old ones. One of the more popular uses of the Internet is the tracing of our ancestry – to reestablish our blood ties.

Empathy is fundamental to trust. If we perceive a person is able to empathise with ourselves then we are more inclined to trust them. We trust that they will respond and behave appropriately. For example, we might share our passions, religious beliefs or national identity without fear of mockery, prejudice or violence.

In the study on yawning it was suggested that it was the capacity for empathy towards humans that was a trait selected in dogs during domestication. Put another way, the capacity for mutual empathy was a factor that helped our ancestors trust which dogs were allowed to join the tribe.

So why must empathy play such an important role in design thinking? The more empathic we are to the user during the design process the more the user will trust our product, trust our service and trust our brand.


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