Harvard psychiatrist, Helen Reiss, asks this pertinent question:
“Don’t we all want to be seen, heard and have our needs responded to; that’s the essence of empathy”.
Professor Reiss is referring to inter-human empathy within healthcare when she makes this statement but it applies across the species barrier. If you think about it, the very core of work such as Marc Bekoff’s call to action in his book ‘The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons To Expand Our Compassion Footprint’, Temple Grandin’s ‘Making Animals Happy’ and the entire work of Jane Goodall (to my knowledge) are efforts at engaging others to see, hear and respond to the needs of other species.
As professionals operating within a science based model we tend to focus very strongly on evidence based practice and are, quite rightly, regularly reading, quoting and attending to the literature and promoting what we find as ‘best practice’. That’s great but we must also exercise this with caution for two reasons:
- We must be critical thinkers and read scientific papers with an analysing mind and not simply believe what we read on the page.
- We desperately need to attend to the fact our scientific literature is NOT the way to motivate our humans clients (more about this in a bit).
Just to touch lightly on problem one, there is no greater story that demonstrates the dangers here than Frans de Waal’s recollections in ‘The Age of Empathy’.
De Waal reminds us that the ‘father of behaviourism,’ John Watson, “became so enamoured by the power of conditioning that he became allergic to emotions. He was particularly sceptical of maternal love, which he considered a dangerous instrument”.
De Waal explains that Watson’s belief was so powerful that he thought babies could be raised according to these new “scientific principles” the result of which led to “orphans kept in little cribs deprived of visual stimulation and bodily contact. As recommended by scientists, the orphans had never been cooed at, held, or tickled. They looked like zombies, with immobile faces and wide open expressionless faces. Had Watson been right these children should have been thriving, but they in fact lacked all resistance to disease. At some orphanages, mortality approached 100 percent”.
Quotes are direct passages from Frans De Waal’s (2009) The Age Of Empathy p.12-13.
Of course professionals at the time took what was written by Watson and later Skinner, as scientific ‘fact’ which is clearly a dangerous game when you consider the evidence above. So how do we empathically and analytically engage with the literature in front of us? Helen Stringer, a lecturer at Newcastle University gives us some useful tips here.
But getting back to my second point, how do we motivate our clients, how do we change their behaviour?
A lovely colleague of mine is a highly-respected authority on dog behaviour and training. She holds multiple qualifications including a MRes, is well regarded by local vets receiving consistent referrals and is the resident ‘expert’ on our BBC radio station yet I know she is constantly frustrated by the problem of getting people to listen. Over the years I’ve watched her struggle with frustration, particularly when a completely unqualified ‘trainer’ or ‘behaviourist’ arrives on the scene and suddenly has hundreds of followers on social media – how and why does this happen?
Getting empathically engaged with where our human clients are ‘coming from’ is ultimately the very essence of what we are trying to do to change the world for the animals we want to help. So why is it so hard to get clients to listen to our solid scientific knowledge?
I believe the discoveries of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio might give us a clue. Damasio’s ground breaking discovery (detailed in his book “Decartes Error” – a brilliant read) explains that, in studying people who have suffered damage to parts of their brain where emotion is generated, he found a very peculiar common factor – they couldn’t seem to make decisions! They could describe things in logical, factual terms but would be devoid of emotion when doing so. Damasio recounts that, when one patient was recalling the accident in which he’d sustained the damage he, Damasio, was more affected by the story than that patient. These same patients would find it difficult to make even the simplest decisions such as what to have to eat.
These findings have enormous implications for our dogged promotion of scientific facts simply because they show us that emotion isn’t just a part of decision making, it’s at the very core of it. In fact many psychologists now assume that emotions are the dominant driver of even the most meaningful decisions in life (Ekman 2007, Kelter & Lerner 2010, Keltner et al 2014). Little wonder then that we struggle to engage our clients with our scientific approach.
To put it succinctly; emotion and decision are simultaneous.
With this in mind we have to consider how we actually block our own success in influencing our clients when we obsess over anthropomorphism, statistics and ‘facts’. Within our professional circles we must certainly attend to these issues BUT when we seek to engage our clients we need to start thinking outside the box, avoiding the trap of early behaviourists, effectively sterilising our profession and, in doing so, dissociating from the people we really need to be connecting with.
Bekoff, M. (2010). The Animal Manifesto; Ten Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint. California. New World Library.
Damasio, A. (2006). Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason & the Human Brain. London. Random House Books.
de Waal, F. (2009). The Age of Empathy. Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. USA, Souvenir Press.
Ekman P. (2007). Emotions revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New York, Holt Books.
Grandin, T. (2010). Making Animals Happy. How to Create the Best Life for Pets & Other Animals. London. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Keltner, D. & Lerner, J.S. (2010). Emotion. In The Handbook of Social Psychology. Eds. D.T. Gilbert, S.T. Fiske, G. Lindzey. pp. 317-52. New York, NY: Wiley
Keltner, D., Oatley, K., Jenkins, J.M. (2014). Understanding Emotions. Hoboken, Wiley Press.
Reiss, H. (2015). YouTube video.