Can empathy survive the echo chamber?

Because not enough’s been written about the referendum already…

One of the many things that brought me up short in the aftermath of the Brexit vote was the analysis that so many people had voted out because they were surrounded by calls to leave, especially on social media. Surrounded by friends and strangers all calling for the UK to vote itself out of the EU.

I had the opposite experience. Virtually none of my friends, family, colleagues or neighbours talked about leaving; and my feeds were almost entirely full of passionate calls to stay.

I know we all live in an echo chamber to some extent, surrounding ourselves with like-minded voices – but I have to say I hadn’t realised quite how insulating that chamber was. How different the UK actually is to the one I assumed I lived in. This is almost more worrying than the economic, political and social uncertainties of Brexit – that we are a divided nation that doesn’t recognize its other half. It’s a phenomenon of course that’s playing out beyond the UK, notably in the Presidential race in the United (or not so) States.

We are a society not only split by the effects of globalization into rich and poor, but blinded to that split by media fragmentation that allows us to share views, opinions and reference points almost entirely with people like us. We’re not blinded to it any more. We often talk about the importance of empathy, but it’s not empathetic to be able to understand and share the feelings of others when ‘others’ is restricted to people like ourselves living in the same echo chamber.

If it wasn’t clear before June 23rd it is certainly clear now, that none of us can afford to confine our conversations and connections to people like us. It doesn’t work politically and it doesn’t work commercially either. Marketing teams know they have to get into the hearts and minds of their consumers. But that has to go beyond market research and focus groups to genuine connection and understanding. To talking directly to their consumers wherever they are and truly understanding their lives. Even more important for people working on global brands to be able to hear more than the voices in their head office echo chamber.

Sales teams know they have to listen to their customers’ needs. But that has to go beyond parroting rehearsed questions and trigger words to something more like genuine empathy.

And corporates and civil society know – in their minds – that they need to partner with each other more in the future; they talk of shared value and shared agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals. But they have to go further than understanding the rational case for partnership, to connecting with their hearts too and making a sincere effort to empathise with those who don’t share their own views and don’t have the same starting point.

Maybe I’m searching for a silver lining where there isn’t one, but I will certainly be trying to extend my own reference points beyond people like me from now on.

  • Koann

    It would be a terrific outcome if your commitment were shared by all, Andy. All best!

    • Andy Last

      we can but try!

  • Benjamin Chilcott

    as every Andy spot on mate.

    • Andy Last

      Thanks Benj

  • Eli Turander

    I couldn’t agree more – and that’s also why it’s so important to have a diverse workforce. It’s all too easy to employ people like yourself and end up with an organisation that doesn’t really reflect the world we live in. Luckily salt isn’t like that 🙂

    • Andy Last

      we try!

  • Jon Alexander

    Agree to some extent, but I would argue that the social media echo chamber is both a symptom and an amplifier of a deeper division in our society… Michael Sandel (Harvard philosopher) talks about “equality of condition”, whereby a society is sufficiently equal that everyone in it can broadly imagine and relate to each others’ lives, saying this is a fundamental prerequisite of a functioning democracy. I’d argue we now lack this degree of equality, and the divisions in social media result. So while I’m with you that expanding follow lists is worth doing, structural inequality and division might need a bit more…

    • Andy Last

      Of course, and what you’re doing with New Citizenship points in that direction, Jon. Sandel may also be the most intelligent writer on the planet

  • Guy Bigwood

    Totally agree, and it was shocking for me too. i consider I have a very diverse global group of friends and colleagues – of whom 95% voiced Remain. Its made me really think about the bubble we live in – across nations and not just in our home surrounding.

    • Andy Last

      Indeed. Hope you burst the bubble a bit in Sydney. Sustainable Brands is an important voice

  • Paul polman

    Thanks Andy for sharing. Indeed a wake up call that the current system is increasingly not working for many. We see the same in the US right now. Key is that business understands and plays a more active role in driving a more inclusive economic model. Now is the moment. Short term damage control to say the least.

    • Andy Last

      Thanks Paul. Business has to understand and engage. And be inspired by your example

  • Kate Hayes

    Andy I am very shamefully and very belatedly clearing my inbox and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this post. We talk a lot about the impact of the global echo chamber on license to operate but I’ve never really thought about it in the context of the ubiquitous social networks. A huge challenge for business and governments considering the very closed and private nature of many of these networks.