What happens to groups and societies when a lack of empathy is amplified – some thoughts

We all like a good bit of drama, to have a story told well. It draws everyone in. It’s fascinating for us all to watch. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre had its cheap standing area as well as the balconies for the richer folk. But the drama was staged – the actors use conflict to drive the story forward.

And crucially, when we leave the theatre we don’t copy the script, obviously by not killing and maiming people on our way home, but subtly by using our empathy for others in our social skills.

But today our in-built fascination with conflict and drama has been automated and monetised. Social and media companies and television production companies have employed psychologists to ‘improve’ their audience share by looking for low-cost ways to amplify conflict. By “social and media companies” I mean here those companies who cultivate very large audiences in order to sell their attention to advertisers, whether its Facebook, broadcast TV, online TV, Twitter or others with the same business model.

It’s important to say that this is not all media companies – I’d say that many companies producing video games have shown a great responsibility and service in creating safe spaces for people to explore and experience drama, minority communities and personal development. This often happens during play that is online in social groups with staffed moderation and curation of gaming communities.

But some social and media companies have deliberately used their algorithms and storylines to amplify conflict. For example, we saw in Channel Four’s programme Big Brother, when the initial high audience figures started to fall away, how the practice of “conflict casting” was used to select participants who were more likely to be antagonistic to each other. These days it is called “noisy TV” in the trade, which is meant to catch more people’s attention. Psychologists looked in particular for people who, for whatever reason, had less empathy than others. The Jeremy Kyle show also springs to mind. But so do the many ‘reality’ TV programmes with a divisive narrative, often against poorer people living on benefits.

We see the same dynamic in politics – Donald Trump shows less empathy than, for example, Michelle Obama. Boris Johnson with less empathy than, say, Ed Miliband.

But what might make great TV, might make memorable politics, might make compulsive posting online, is corrosive for society as a whole and for social groups.

Social groups are areas wider than our immediate friends and family where we learn and practice our social skills, including our empathy for people we might not fully agree with, or even strongly disagree with.

However, I wonder if the increasing pervasiveness and amplification of conflict with and indifference to the feelings of the other person, monetised by the larger social and media companies, is causing social harms at the micro level as well as at the macro level. This micro level includes most community, neighbourhood and voluntary groups, societies and associations.

Any one group can only cope with a certain amount of a lack of empathy within it before it must disintegrate and collapse as a social group. Good community development skills can mitigate this to an extent, but everything has its limits.

“We have more in common than divides us” is not just a morally good statement, it is an instruction, a commandment, we give to ourselves to protect our empathy skills against the structures that seek to undermine them for their own gain, both political and commercial.

I feel that the textbook of skills for community development needs a new chapter for the 21st century – something like – Rebuilding Empathy in Communities in the face of Social and Media Amplifications of Conflict.


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