I was recently forwarded a link to Twenty One Toys, whose featured product is called, straightforwardly, the Empathy Toy. I was intrigued. I checked out the company's site and dug around online to find out more.
On the surface, The Empathy Toy looks and sounds like something you might find in a preschool. In fact, the game was originally developed as a communication tool for children with vision impairments. Founder, Ilana Ben-Ari, didn't have the continued access to visually impaired people during the testing phase of product development so she did what any determined entrepreneur would do; she invited her friends over and blindfolded them.
If that was not enough to endear me to Ms. Ben-Ari, the closing line of one of her TEDx talks really resonated with me, and reminded me of why I'm here. She recounts a story about a professor who taught her class that if a product is to be sustainable, that idea must be implemented at the beginning of development. Ironically, this lesson was given over in the last weeks of a 4-year program in industrial design. Why, asked one of her classmates, hadn't this important notion been introduced in the very beginning of the program? Ms. Ben-Ari took the question to heart, and decided that it was important to always start at the beginning-- by teaching empathy to children.
I came to a similar conclusion -- that we need to start teaching empathy early on -- but I got there for a different reason. I was visiting a school once that was papered in magic-markered signs with not-so-subtle messages like 'Don't Bully!" and "Tell A Teacher!" There were drawings too: Poppy Red circles with slashes over stick figures who were flexing their muscles. There was also the ubiquitous 'kids of different colours hold hands around an Asparagus Green and Aquamarine earth.' Apparently, I'd walked into the throes Bully Prevention week, and the whole scene almost moved me to cry Cerulean Blue tears. It wasn't the adorable artwork or the plight of little victims that got to me. It was the redundancy of the whole affair.
Don't get me wrong, and don't think me coldhearted (though maybe I need to work on my sarcasm...). I understand that there are good intentions behind Bully Prevention Week. Bullying is bad. Prevention is good. To me, however, it seems that bully prevention is too little, too late. For one thing, bullies and victims are often interchangeable, and both are often afflicted by the same demons (on a simplistic level): low self esteem, lack of confidence, and also a history of victimhood. We need to target would-be-bullies long before they earn the title by actively teaching our little ones about social skills and communication, and by role modelling the expected behaviors. This intentional curriculum needs to be carried throughout all levels of education. In post-primary years, we need to set our individual bars higher with regards to the level of empathy we demonstrate to one another. In doing so, we will be developing the all-around emotional intelligence of our population, with the likely bonus of decreasing the frequency and intensity of cyclical victimhood and bullying. It's not a magic bullet, but it's a very good start. According to studies, increased social skills education can even prevent addictive behaviors in adulthood.
My answer to Bully Prevention Week was the development of CareTrustLead. With my background in alternative education I developed a curriculum which teaches, as the name implies, how to care for ourselves and for others, and how to promote empathy to one another.
I think that the development of Empathy Toy represents how society is taking a step in the right direction. To play, participants are partnered up and -- you guessed it-- blindfolded. Each team is handed the same set of objects in different interlocking shapes. Ostensibly, the object is for each player to put the pieces together in the exact same configuration as their partner. However, what's more important than 'winning' is the process that the team goes through to get there. Each person needs to flex their cognitive empathy skills and try to communicate their position in a way that is clear and unambiguous. Patience and listening skills, as well as the ability to give and receive criticism are developed along the way.
Unsurprisingly, the Empathy Toy proved to be beneficial to populations other than kids and schools, just as CareTrustLead programming is incredibly valuable for workplace environments. In fact, there is a growing admission that emotional intelligence leads to a more productive workforce. Often, employees are used to focusing on the needs of their isolated department. However, when they are able to bolster their communication, develop a sense of comradeship and take perspective of their organization as a whole, improved designs are implemented at the beginning of the process -- just like the professor ordered.
It is encouraging to see that the need for widespread empathy education is being acknowledged by educators, bosses, and now, industrial designers such as Ilana Ben-Ari.
The more I read about empathy, the more I understand it to be not just a cure for so many social ills, but also a very strong form of prevention.
In fact, while perusing the International Society of Addiction Medicine's Textbook of Addiction Treatment: International Perspectives (Volume 1) recently, as I am wont to do (as I am wont to do so long as someone hands it to me open to the right page and says 'read this!'), I came across a chapter on prevention strategies which was originally published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Portugal.
Under a section titled Universal Drug Prevention: Intervening with Populations, the authors call empathy a 'behavioral vaccine'. They cite research which shows that when social competencies (i.e. emotional literacy) are taught -- not merely offered, modeled or absorbed, but actively engaged with and practiced, there is a measurable avoidance or, in some cases, delay of substance use.
The social influence approach, they say, "has consistently been more effective than programs based on any other approach."
Social influence training targets a number of different skills including listening, crafting compliments, empathy, and communication. Personal skills such as goal setting, coping (resilience), and identifying feelings are also addressed. A third category, which involves assessing normative beliefs (what students believes other students' habits of consumption to be), has less evidence to back it up, but to me it sounds like a variation on the Pygmalian effect which asserts that people will live up to the expectations set out for them-- an effect which I've observed to hold true in a great many interpersonal relationships.
Although this article appeared in the context of addiction treatment, the implications might be taken a step further. If the teaching of emotional literacy can prevent a child from developing and addiction later in life, might it prevent a child from developing depression as well? What about a child who is prone to tendencies that are not compatible with social integration. How would social influence training and personal skills serve them as they encounter difficult choices or situations?
I think it's safe to say that a boost of self confidence coupled with a dose of empathy can only be beneficial, and that, like the models cited here from the ISAM Textbook, emotional literacy is something that should be taught intensively at all levels of education.
As an aside, I feel that it's significant that this article was published in Portugal. You may or may not know that Lisbon, Portugal's capital city, was nearly devastated by drug activity and related crime and disease at the end of the '90s. There was one degree of separation or less between almost every person in the population and a heroin addict, and hepatitis and AIDS were rampant. In 2001, Portugal took a drastic and precedent-setting step of decriminalizing drugs. No drug, from pot to crack cocaine would land you in jail. The basis for this change of procedure was an even more dramatic change in attitude, and one which we should all be grateful for, even if you consider this to be de rigueur today. Portugal decided to stop treating addiction as a crime, and instead began to treat it for what it really is; a mental health issue. Instead of incarceration, drug addicts were invited to rehabilitation and, wherever possible, reintegration into society. The result of this experiment has been reduction in crime and addiction, but also in the social and monetary costs associated with an ill population.
Emotional intelligence can prevent drug addiction. Empathy can help populations stay healthy. These two stories speak volumes about the necessity of social skills and empathy training.