From Wikipedia:

Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, ie, the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes

From my perspective, increasing empathy is one of the most important aspects of improving the world. Without empathy, people are not likely to spend much time or money helping others. Without empathy, people will go on living their lives with no regard to others, shaming people left and right without regard to the damage that does. More cyberbullying. Humiliation. Shaming. See Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk on this topic:

How do we increase empathy? Nicholas Kristof wrote about this topic earlier this year, saying:

Let’s encourage student service projects and travel to distant countries and to needy areas nearby.

I obviously agree with that sentiment, since the whole mission of my startup Horizon is to go experience the world with your own eyes rather than experience life through a screen.

Technology is a powerful tool for change, no doubt. It can humanize companies and industries. But can technology truly increase empathy?

I don’t believe that anything changes behavior other than in person experiences. I’m not going to sit here and say that reading in depth profiles of those in poverty is a bad thing. Or that video isn’t a powerful tool. Or that motion pictures can’t tell great stories of despair that result in people feeling guilty for living life the way they do. That answering a question on Quora is a waste of time. But to me, none of those things results in permanent empathy. Maybe empathy for a few moments, or even a day – but not lasting. From where I sit, anything that prompts someone to take action in the physical world is a good thing. Technology can certainly be a conduit to have in person experiences with amazing people, giving you the chance to build empathy. To go on a trip. Volunteer. Mentor a child. But technology can’t, and doesn’t, build empathy by itself. At least, not from my experience.

I wish I had the silver bullet to making more people empathetic. Sadly, it doesn’t exist, as the world desperately needs a heavy dose of it.

It turns out understanding another’s frame of reference…involves actually hearing their side of the story, and having to use your own eyes. Which is precisely why it’s my personal mission in life to put people together in person.

[Photo via http://beingraluca.com/]