The Empathy Test

Published on Author Christopher Fahey16 Comments
bladerunner_empathy_01.jpg

“Let me tell you about my mother…”

In the movie Blade Runner, the “Voight-Kampff Empathy Test” detects whether or not a test subject is a real human being or an android “replicant”. A machine reads the body’s physical reactions to various psychologically- provocative scenarios (“Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris…”) and reveals whether or not the test subject’s sense of empathy is consistent with that of a real human being.

There has always been a lot of talk about “empathy” in the information architecture world. Information architects regularly describe empathy as both a critical prerequisite for the job and as something fundamental to the professional practice. But in all my years as a user experience designer and information architect, I was never taught empathy or specifically tried to train myself to be more empathetic. I’ve never taken any kind of Voight-Kampff test to see how empathetic I am.

Practices like user research and deliverables like user personas certainly embody the concept of empathy, but so does the work of countless other professions — artists/illustrators, doctors, marketers, cops, salespeople, journalists, social workers, politicians, even management. Many of them even specifically include empathy training as part of their academic curricula and professional development programs.

Conversely, I’ve met information architects who are very good at what they do but who don’t strike me as particularly empathetic. Pig headedness, self-aggrandizement, insensitivity, and other non-empathetic personality traits haven’t stood in the way of people becoming excellent at many important aspects of IA. How have we come to claim empathy as a faculty we posess and utilize more than people in other professions do?

Defining the Term

Personally, I’ve tried to avoid using the term since IMHO it conjures up a lot of unprofessional connotations: Like a person in a job interview who claims “I like working with people“, a claim to be empathetic can suggest just the opposite: that one needs to make an overt concerted effort to be empathetic to compensate for a more fundamental shortcoming of the faculty. I’m not even sure we agree on what it means, since for most people it seems to have more of an emotional connotation, and emotion is a subject that IAs rarely, if ever, actually discuss.

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“Did you ever take that test yourself?”

What do you think? Is it fair of user experience designers or information architects to claim “empathy” as a something that makes us special?

For kicks, here’s a real-world empathy test. I took it myself and scored pretty much in the very middle of the empathy range. It hardly seems very scientifically legit, but give it a shot. I doubt too many IAs would score very highly on this particular measure of empathy.

16 Responses to The Empathy Test

  1. I’ve seen that you don’t think Saddam supported al Qaeda at all. You wrote about this on another blog.

    Forgive me for taking the word of Izzat al Douri himself, the son of Bin Laden’s mentor and numerous documents and admissions that all admit Saddam assisted Zarqawi and other al Qaeda affiliates in Northern Iraq and assisted with the training camps in Afghanistan, including with CBW.

    There’s literally hundreds of detainees who’ve admitted as much. Just because you haven’t done the research or the information has come into your path by happenstance doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    If you care about the truth on this topic you can follow it at http://www.regimeofterror.com , http://www.husseinandterror.com and others by people who are chronicling the continued release of documents from Saddam’s regime (in a fashion similar to post Hitler in Germany and the ex Soviet Union after collapse).

    To go on other blogs and write about a topic you’ve invested little time in understanding or treating seriously is either partisan or deliberately ignorant.

  2. Dear Anonymous “Rick”: I visited those links you sent me and they offer the same type of crackpot grasping-at-straws “evidence” that has been seen over and over again.

    Since I don’t know what blog post of mine you are responding to, I obviously cannot defend what I’ve said in the past against your accusations.

    If I said there were no links “at all”, which I doubt I said, I was almost certainly abbreviating instead of saying “worthy of going to war over”. I usually say that I beleive that Saddam’s “links” to terrorism were no stronger than, say, the links to terror that several dozen other countries in the world have had, including our own (have terrorists trained in the US? have they made contacts with members of our intelligence agencies? has there been funding of terrorist groups from US-based organizations? from the US government? yes, yes, yes, and yes).

    The real question is not whether or not links existed, but whether or those links were so substantial that the invasion of Iraq, and the quagmire of violence and terror that has been the result of that invasion, would be worth it. Would overthrowing Saddam help or hurt Al Qaeda? If he were a major funder or strategist for Al Qaeda, or a major philosophical or spiritual influence for them, your argument might make sense. But although he may have communicated with many terrorist groups (was he collaborating with or simply spying on them?) and even sent them money as a public relations gesture of solidarity, he was ultimately not a threat to us, nor was his assistance to terror significant.

    Were were better off letting Saddam keep up those connections as they were? Or are we better off now, with thousands of terrorists having free access to Saddam’s entire arsenal of weapons, with terrorists training in Iraq by the thousands, with the erasure of a major secular regime in the Muslim world, and with our occupation inspiring more and more hatred by the day? I think not.

    Saddam’s funding to Palestinian suicide bombers, his welcome mat for Abu Abbas, the clandestine meetings in Prague and wherever else — none of these seem like things that the US should have been panicking about, much less worthy of investing hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives to put an end to them. And indeed while we were probably tracking this stuf, we were not significanty worried about them until after the Iraq War failed to achieve its insane fantasyland objectives and people like you found the need to find some desperate after-the-fact reason to make the quagmire justifiable — instead of simply admitting it was all a collosal mistake.

    Anyway, to leave an anonymous post accusing me of partisanship and ignorance is partisan and ignorant of you, and more than a little hypocritical. I only answered you to show that I’ve got some fight in me, even though I find debating anonymous crackpots like you tiresome and ultimately unfulfilling. What a waste of 15 minutes of my life.

  3. Christopher,

    Those sites are only crackpots?

    Sure, they are based on bipartisan Senate reports, AP stories, the Duelfer report, admissions from Izzat al Douri, Zarqawi’s own crew, Kurdish security officials, the Iraqi Perspectives Project, etc and are just crackpots.

    Of course you left a conditional that “well maybe there were links but they weren’t important.”

    Ok, tough guy that likes to go on other people’s sites and debate them but not having the argument brought back to them, answer this.

    Where did al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Sudan and Northern Iraq get their manuals/recipe books for cbw? The answer according to numerous detainees from both sides (Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda) is that they got it from Saddam’s IIS.
    Charles Duelfer, George Tenet and members of Clinton and Bush administrations have confirmed this.

    I am sorry it’s unfulfilling and “tiresome” for you to have to explain yourselve and your opinions on issues that you know quite little about.

    Read something other than the MSNBC/Washington Post/Carl Levin version of Saddam’s links to al Qaeda and you might learn a thing or two about the thousands of terrorists trained in Iraq pre-invasion from throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East….

    boo hoo hoo you had to “waste” 15 minutes of your life being less of a uneducated hack. boo hoo hoo

  4. Crikey! This blog has some good sqaubbling, erm… I mean conversation going on. ;)

    Chris, I know what you are saying about the empathy thing. At face value it just comes across as another “thing” that people in our field buzz about.

    But I would offer up this opinion. I think professionals of any trade lose a sense of empathy after a while if they don’t make concious efforts to maintain it.

    Like the Doctor who is highly skilled and experienced but could polish up on bedside manners. Sure they can be great at what they do, but give me a Doctor that is equally as skilled but also more “empathetic” and I’ll take the latter every time.

    I encourage my designers to try things for themselves which relate to the subject matter they are designing for. Usually this results in more “empathy” for the lack of a better word. I don’t care what we call it, I just know it makes us better at what we do.

  5. Rick: I did read both of those sites you linked to, and contrary to your assumptions about my supposed willful ignorance neither of the sites contained any major information that I didn’t already know about. Most of those facts were reported in the mainstream press you seem to hate so much, including the WashPost and the NY Times — hell, the New York Times was quite often the first to report this stuff!

    Even if all of the facts were true — and I am inclined to believe that most of the important stuff is true — I would still not think that they added up to a practical or strategically sound reason for invading Iraq. Like dozens of other countries around the world, Iraq was linked to terrorists. But they were not linked to such a degree nor of such a sort that attacking them would do any damage to any terrorist organizations. In fact, attacking Iraq might have been exactly what Al Qaeda wanted us to do. The facts on the ground in Iraq bear me out here, I think.

    I am hapy to debate you anytime anywhere, and I’m glad you returned to keep talking. It just smakes of troll-ism to debate with someone who (a) won’t tell me what it is that I originally wrote that he is objecting to (or where I wrote it), (b) responds to a post about empathy with a debate about Saddam Hussein (could you maybe respond to another post on my site, like one actually about Iraq?), and (c) won’t leave a full/real name.

    I’m curious about what you think about the Bush Administration saying that they don’t think Saddam and Al Qaeda were “linked”. Do you think that they are just saying that because the liberals have forced them to say it?

    At least we agree on Blade Runner.

  6. David: Nice to see you here! I agree that user experience designers should try to cultivate empathy as part of their process. I just can’t help but notice that so many UI designers claim to posess empathy but don’t back it up with any concrete practices or techniques, as if simply by virtue of being a designer or an information architect we have the right to claim to be empathetic. As in your doctor example, I think some UX professionals have it and some simply don’t.

  7. wow… didnt you guys get the memo? why are we talking about Iraq? That is SO 2003… We are now talking about Iran – which is sooooo 2006.

    And more importantly I thought this was a post about empathy and not something to be hijacked by political rubbish.

    :)

    Chris, btw I enjoy your site. Keep up the wicked work.

    Fancy

  8. I scored 136. I’m not sure why you said IA’s wouldn’t score highly…. that strikes me as odd, since most IA’s spend a ton of their time trying to “channel” the user.

  9. Christina: Great question. I said that because I’ve met a great many IAs who seem like borderline cases of Asperger’s Syndrome, intensely focused on organizational and structural problem-solving as the source of their IA abilities. I’ve seen IAs argue in favor of taxonomies that are logically sound even when it doesn’t even remotely match how their users think.

    A favorite adage of mine is “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”: When an IA becomes fixated on structural problem solving sometimes it’s hard to get them to come back to the point where they are listening to users, and Wordsworth’s old chestnut is a nice way to snap out of that.

    Also, the fact that 90% of the posts on the CHI list (and 25% on SIG-IA) seem to be questions where the asker would rather make a decision based on some research study instead of either (a) actually talking to users, or (b) drawing on their professional instincts — instincts that rely on empathy. When an IA scoffs at relying on gut instincts, when they look for research, they are in a way distrusting empathy.

    Put it this way: All great IAs are highly empathetic, but a lot of people who are IAs are not great IAs.

  10. I’d like to do the “empathy test” you mention above. The link you provided no longer has an active destination. Any ideas? thanks

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