Tag Archives: empathy

“Too Big for our Brains”

You’ve seen it.  You may have done it yourself.  Someone cuts in front of you while driving.  How rude!  You yell at them, maybe cussing at them.  Behavior that probably wouldn’t happen among friends happens easily among strangers.   Why is this?

For around two million years, humans lived in small foraging groups of around 25 to 50 individuals.  When food was plentiful, the groups would gather together to exchange news and to find a mate.  A variety of research studies by anthropologists has found that humans can form optimal connections with no more than about 150 others.  Beyond that number, others tend to be viewed as strangers and, therefore, as potentially dangerous.

This data forms the basis of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ucka book on manners for the 21st century  written by Amy Alkon whose advice is informed by solid scientific research leavened by pointed and humorous personal anecdotes.   Our brains are optimized for small-group living, but most of us live in cities and suburbs surrounded by strangers.  The group size we now have to deal with is too big for our brains. This makes it difficult to behave well towards strangers.  But an effective society requires that we figure out how to do just that.

Alkon’s primary recommendation is to turn strangers into neighbors.  Actually look at everyone you encounter: smile, be pleasant. When you really see someone and they really see you, it is harder for either of you to be rude.  “[R]udeness…almost always comes down to a failure of empathy–neglecting to consider how our behavior will affect others.” (p. 196)

Failures of empathy tread all over another person’s dignity and may cause that person also to behave rudely.  A negative cycle ensues.

When we view someone as a stranger rather than a neighbor, it is easier to treat that person as not fully human.  As Alkon notes, we have to find ways to connect with strangers in order to make them co-humans with whom we can relate.  Or, as I say to my students, “Build Bridges, not Walls.”

In this holiday season where the focus is on peace and goodwill, use empathy to break down walls and build bridges.  View others as potential friends rather than potential dangers. Turn strangers into neighbors.