Active empathy makes for better research

There are skills necessary for good research and policy design, but not all of them can be taught. One of the skills I advocate that my students develop, but to be honest I’m not sure if I’m all that convincing, is active empathy i.e. to willfully try to place yourselves in the context that is driving the model underlying your research question and imagine how you would behave. This is, perhaps, more work than it sounds.

Trying to imagine how you would behave in a given decision context requires not just imagining how you would make the best possible decision, but what you might actually do. This means imagining your own hypothetical state of mind in the model event context. How tired you might be, how frustrated or bored or scared. How invested you are cognitively or how distracted from the entire enterprise. Would you even be conscious of the decision in the moment you were making it, or would you only realize it upon later reflection?

What would your resource constraints be and what would it feel like to live under those constraints? What sort of rewards or punishments are you considering? This is where it pays to be honest with both your current and hypothetical selves. If you’re a car salesman, are you more excited about making the most money or being the best salesperson in the lot? If you’re a cop, are you more excited about making a big arrest or making it through the day with the minimum of interactions? Do you care more about your boss liking you or your fellow street officers?

This also, more often than not, means imaging you are a completely different person. This is where it is strongly advisable to practice not just active empathy, but active humility. I like to think I am pretty good at putting myself in other people’s shoes, but I also know I will never be able to fully empathize with the experience of being a woman in an abusive domestic context with two young children during a global pandemic. What I can do, however, is start by actively empathizing with the elements of that context that are accessible to me and my life experience, and then do my best to add into the exercise the different constraints, outside options, and resources available that might change the decisions made. I can enrich the mental model I am building by trying to appreciate what it means to make decisions, in any context, under the duress of physical fear and heightened uncertainty, while all the while acknowledging my exercise is inherently limited by my own experience.

Having invested real time and energy in this exercise, you’ll be in a better place to guide your research and policy design, not just because you’re thinking about the problem from the ground level, but because you’ve forced yourself to acknowledge where your blind spots are, and can do your best to address them. First person narrative accounts (“anecdotes”) don’t usually make for great data, but they are great way to let someone else’s experience to partially (but never fully) fill in your gaps. To be clear, I don’t view this as an alternative to standard rational choice frameworks of analysis. Quite the contrary, I think it exactly when the choices being made by others seem entirely irrational that it is most advisable to step back and try to actively empathize with the decisionmaker– to try to see the choices, constraints, and other players in the game as they actually see them. It’s amazing what can quickly become completely rational once you consider in resource constraints, especially information constraints, people are operating within.

If it sounds like I’m trying to convince economists everywhere of the merits of Method Acting, don’t worry, I’m not.

No, scratch that. That’s exactly what I’m doing. Just keep your rehearsals to yourself.

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