Peter Bazalgette’s The Empathy Instinct, published last month, shows how we can discard the quantifying language of economics when talking about the arts, and what our central concern should be when we do this. Referring to the latest scientific research as well as to current practices in the arts, Bazalgette describes how the “empathy instinct” is central to a healthy society.
There are two main threads in the book. The first is about defining empathy and showing how, via arts processes, it promotes social cohesion within a group; the second is about showing how conflicts arising between socially cohesive groups can be resolved using empathy (via arts processes).
The empathy instinct comprises two types of empathy which coexist and interrelate: emotional empathy, and cognitive empathy. It is the result both of what we have inherited and of how our environment has shaped us, particularly in the early childhood years.
Emotional empathy is developmentally the most basic type of empathy, and occurs when motor mimicry leads to emotional contagion – that is, when one person copies another’s movements and, thanks to the work of mirror neurons, begins to feel the same way as the other person does (that may be as simple as a baby returning your smile). In a recent post I spoke about kinaesthetic empathy between members of an orchestra: that is this process at work and it does not require language for communication.
Cognitive empathy definitely requires language. “Cognitive empathy is a more ‘thinking’ connection with another. It is our attempt to understand the emotions and thoughts of others.” (2017:66). In fact, referring to the work of Frans de Waal, he writes “language itself may have developed from our desire not just to communicate but also to empathise effectively.” (2017:49).
Empathy helps to promote social cohesion in groups. The empathy which engenders loyalty to one’s own group can make us hostile to others, even against our own better judgement, which can be distorted by the group’s interests (as described in the work of Joshua Greene).
Understanding the role empathy plays in creating an “us” and a “them” is the first step to designing a way to resolve conflict. Citing the work of Ruth Feldman with Israeli and Palestinian young people, Bazalgette writes “Her tentative conclusion was that working on emotional empathy via our more primitive, non-verbal social behaviours, may be a better route for conflict resolution than targeting our higher, cognitive processes. Peace-promoting exercises might be most effective, allowing humane, person-to-person exchanges without too many complex history lessons.” (2017:235).
This points to the important role that kinaesthetic empathy can play in creating empathy between hostile sides, so it should not come as a surprise that Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, was founded to unite Israeli and Palestinian young musicians in a shared creative endeavour.
In the final chapter of the book, Bazalgette lists many examples of different arts processes and how they currently use empathy to improve mutual understanding and resolve conflict: “We’ve seen how arts and culture can capture the human condition in an emotionally powerful way. This enables us to empathise with others, even those different to us. Via our imagination we produce a ‘theory of mind’. This is an instinctive brain function for most of us and is potentially beneficial in society, but only if we go beyond the cognitive.” (2017:270).
In a recent article regarding the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA’s precarious future prospects, the author proposes that we need the positive impact the arts can have in resolving negative outcomes of globalisation (such as populism) by promoting pro-social behaviour: “As the planet becomes at once smaller and more complex, the public needs a vital arts scene, one that will inspire us to understand who we are and how we got here — and one that will help us to see other countries, like China, not as enemies in a mercenary trade war but as partners in a complicated world.”. As Bazalgette writes, “it seems likely that the best results occur when both emotional and cognitive empathy are married to a reasoned respect for justice and human rights.”, something which the arts are eminently placed to achieve.
The importance of cultural value in achieving long-term subjective well-being has been the subject of other posts in this blog, and I have written about the importance of the intrinsic psychological need “relatedness” – the feeling that one belongs to a group – as being possibly the most important of the three intrinsic needs (autonomy, relatedness, competence) required for “happiness”. I have shown how kinaesthetic empathy, emotional capital, and emotional intelligence are intimately connected to social cohesion, and how music processes are well-placed to promote these.
The Econocracy described the revolution in economics that is happening because people in real life cannot be reduced to the homo œconomicus of neoclassical economics textbooks. The Empathy Instinct describes how and why real people do not always make rational decisions, and how this is intimately connected with cultural value. A revolution driven by creators of cultural value would be the other side of the economics revolution’s coin.
If the cultural revolution is to take place, Bazalgette’s The Empathy Instinct should be the handbook for creators of cultural value to know what it is they are aiming for and how they should go about achieving that goal – a more civil society.
I would like to end today with a quote form Asghar Farhadi’s in absentia speech at the Oscars last night: “Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy we need today more than ever.”