Humans are extraordinarily social creatures – our ability to form complex communities where we exchange goods and services, as well as knowledge, has no doubt been essential to our success as a species. Empathy is central to our desire to care for and connect with our fellow human beings – whether they are close friends or family, or others in the community that rely on the generous donations of strangers.
But are all humans empathic by nature, or are there some amongst us who struggle to see any perspective other than their own? Are we as empathic as our parents and grandparents, and what are the implications for society as a whole if empathy is on the wane?
I spoke to social psychologist Sara Konrath, from the University of Michigan, about intergenerational differences in empathy, and how this important social attribute seems to be diminishing in Generation Y in the latest episode of Up Close. Sara is Assistant Professor with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan.
It’s an eternal question for parents, teachers and managers the world over – how does one person go about motivating another to perform a task, and to perform it well? Even on a personal level, we often struggle to muster the enthusiasm to achieve the goals that we set ourselves – whether it’s to exercise regularly, to answer all those emails, or to learn Mandarin.
The traditional answer to these motivational challenges is reward and punishment – carrots and sticks. Bonuses can encourage employees to up their sales performance, for example; and for children, the prospect of not being permitted to go out and play often ensures that homework gets done.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical about science communication that uses art. For me, neuroscience has always been interesting enough without anyone needing to crochet a woolen brain, and I guess my natural inclination is towards the written word rather than visual display when it comes to science – where’s the room for detail and specifics in artistic representations of science?
I think I’ve perhaps been a little too dismissive, though. I recently recorded an episode of Up Close with Dr Michael John Gorman, director of Science Gallery, a science-meets-art project at Trinity College Dublin. Gorman talks about the risks of infantilizing science – something you see a lot of in traditional science museums that seem to forget about anyone above the age of about 12 – and discusses how bringing science and art together can foster debate and innovation in both fields.
Aside from anything else, he convinced me of two things – I need to check out Science Gallery when I’m next in Dublin, and Michael John possibly has one of the coolest jobs in science communication.