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A Research-Backed Argument for Empathy

Published 7/9/2018

In today's episode, we're talking about empathy and why everyone needs it.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
You've probably heard that it's important for you to develop empathy for other people, whether it's for your customers or a stakeholder or for the sake of this episode, your co-workers. And hopefully, if you're listening to this show and you've been listening for a while, you know that empathy for others is something we believe in very strongly. It's important that we have empathy for many reasons. Of course, empathy is kind of the bedrock of having civility, being able to care for another person's well-being or another person's experience. This is kind of built in. In today's episode, we're going to extend a discussion on empathy and explain some science as to why empathy may be difficult to actually develop so that you can put a little bit more energy towards it. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers connect to their career purpose so they can do better work and have a positive influence on the people around them. And the positive influence isn't just on the people around you. It's also on you, the positive influence of you finding your purpose and doing great work. It certainly is on you. And the whole reason I created this show in the first place is because, well, first of all, I wanted this show to exist, I wanted the short format show to exist and focused topics like what we talk about on the show, but also because I believe that developers often don't have a forum for these kinds of conversations. We use the word empathy, but it becomes a very one-dimensional discussion. We think empathy is caring or putting a bunch of energy towards someone else's experience. We want to care for their experience and that's all that it is. But the truth is empathy goes deeper than that. It's understanding what another person is feeling or experiencing and being able to act from that place of understanding. This definition is somewhat drastically different than simply caring. If you care for someone else's experience, then that means you have enough investment in it to do something. But if you understand another person's experience, this is like emotional intelligence. It allows you to act more responsibly and perhaps more effectively. It's easy to become skeptical about empathy, about developing empathy. Sometimes empathy seems like we're making excuses for someone else's mistakes, mistakes that they could have avoided. But we've avoided. Mistakes that we saw coming and everyone was warning that person about. But empathy goes deeper than that and we all need empathy. We're going to take a quick break to talk about today's sponsor and when we come back, we're going to talk about some research that shows why you and everyone else, well, we desperately need empathy to be able to work well together. Today's episode is sponsored by DataDog. DataDog is a SaaS-based monitoring platform that provides developers and ops teams with a unified view of all of their systems, their apps, and their logs. Thousands of organizations rely on DataDog to collect, visualize, and alert on out of the box and custom metrics to gain full stack observability with a unified view of all of their systems, apps, and services at cloud scale. What does this mean? Well, it means that you have 200 turnkey integrations on day one with DataDog. You don't have to go and make those dashboards yourself. You can integrate with AWS, Postgres, Kubernetes Slack, and basically all of your favorite languages, tons of integrations with things that I've never even heard of or used, but certainly DataDog customers find important. The key features of DataDog include real-time visibility from built-in and customizable dashboards, algorithmic alerts like anomaly detection, outlier detection, and forecasting alerts. This is a really cool concept, by the way. If you're not really familiar with this, this means that if you have a forecasted thing that might happen in three days from now, for example, DataDog can help you identify whether that thing is going to happen, so you can preemptively scale up your servers. They also have end-to-end request tracing to visualize app performance and real-time collaboration. Nothing comes for free except DataDog does provide a free trial. And if you go and sign up at datadog.com slash Developer Tea, you can get a free T-shirt. Head over to datadog.com slash Developer Tea today and get your free T-shirt. Thank you again to DataDog for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So we're talking about empathy and why everyone needs empathy. Some interesting research in cognitive science came out in 2016 that paper was titled the Selective Laziness of Reasoning. Participants in the study were asked to solve a series of logic puzzles and then provide some reasoning as to why they solved them the way they did. After on in the study, they were asked to judge other people's reasoning as to why they solved puzzles the way that they did. But here's the catch. It wasn't other people's reasoning, it was their own. And in over half of the cases where people were presented with their own reasoning for why they solved problems the way they did, they rejected that reasoning. In other words, the only thing that changed in the participant's mind was the author who wrote this justification? Was it me or was it someone else? So in planar terms, we have a tendency to judge other people's justifications more stringently, more strictly than we judge our own. Now assuming that this behavior is consistent in workplace environments, for example, this can play out many different ways. We may approach others more critically than we approach ourselves and plenty of other research backs this up. For example, more than 50% of people believe that they are smarter than the average person. This is mathematically impossible, of course. But in the original study, the selective laziness study, people were more likely to judge harshly the answers or the justification for the answers that were incorrect than were correct. In other words, their criticism wasn't unfounded, as it turns out their criticism was pretty well-founded. So even though we have a tendency to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves, it may not necessarily be because we judge others too harshly, but rather that we judge ourselves too laxely. And this is where the discussion about empathy kicks in. Because the reality is, you may be right. You may be able to see something that someone else didn't see, and you believe they should have seen. You may be able to look at their situation in identify ways that they could easily improve, and they're just not, perhaps they're stubborn, or maybe it's just a part of their personality. Maybe they're having a difficult week emotionally. But where we go wrong is believing that the clarity that we have as an outsider is shared by the person we are judging. In other words, this experiment shows that, yeah, you're probably right as a critic. You're probably often right. You can see ways that other people can improve. In your coworkers, for example, you may be able to see another developer who continues to make the same mistakes and introduce the same bugs into the code base. Or maybe you have a developer who won't adhere to the test protocols that your company has set up. Or maybe you have a designer or a manager or another colleague that's making mistakes that you as a developer, someone who doesn't have their skillset, you feel like even you could fix. But the moment of clarity is recognizing that there are things that you are not judging yourself harshly enough about. This is why humility is not only important and necessary for learning, but it's also scientifically valid. We need to seek humility as developers and as people. But for no other reason than to defeat this self-interested bias, the idea that we believe that our justifications are more valid than they are. The interesting titling of this by the researchers who did the original study, selective laziness, is identifying that we have the capacity to think and act more responsibly or perhaps with less laziness than we do. But perhaps that capacity is better served when we use it in collaboration. So here's the challenge that I have for you today on Developer Tea. I encourage you to seek humility on the show all the time because we have so many biases, so many blind spots, so many ways that we can be wrong, that we almost certainly are wrong on a very regular basis. I know I am, and even on the show, I tell you to listen and take everything with a grain of salt because I have certainly not escaped the traps of many of the cognitive biases that I even talk about on the show. But my challenge to you today is to allow yourself to see your co-workers as people who can help you with those blind spots. You're not supposed to fix all these problems alone. We're better together. We're better when we allow others to provide criticism to us. And in exchange, we responsibly provide criticism back. I'll leave you with one final quote. We don't often use quotes on Developer Tea, but I think this one is appropriate for today's episode. And it comes from Marcus Aurelius, and it's very simple. Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Now the important point to take away here from Marcus Aurelius' quote isn't that you need to beat down on yourself. The more important part of this is to be tolerant with others. Being strict with yourself is more about kind of debiasing that sense of arrogance and perhaps a misplaced sense of self-confidence that is overinflated. And you can practice this with your co-workers starting today. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea, and thank you again to DataDog for sponsoring today's episode with DataDog. You can watch all of the performance of your various services and logs all in one place. Go and check it out, data.com slash Developer Tea, and remember they're going to give you a free T-shirt for being a Developer Tealistener and signing up for that free account at data dog.com slash Developer Tea. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. If you haven't yet subscribed to this podcast, I encourage you to do so, especially if you enjoyed today's episode. There's going to be more like this episode coming up on Developer Teaas soon as Monday. We do three episodes a week, so I encourage you if you don't want to miss out on future episodes, subscribe and whatever podcasting app you are listening to right now. Thank you so much for listening, and until next time, enjoy your tea.