Designing Information to Evoke Empathy
Independent Study with Brian Sturm
May 1, 2015
On my honor, I have not taken unauthorized help on this assignment.
Madeline Coven (signed)
We do not associate information with feeling. Information is a cold, hard thing with
numbers and charts, whereas empathy is an intimate psychic bond between self and other. In
this essay, I will try to bridge objective information and subjective emotion. Empathy is a way of
thinking about information. If we empathize with the subjects, we remember their stories and
therefore the contexts in which they operate. Information analyzed in depth like this is better
remembered than information that is analyzed superficially.
In fact, we can think of empathy as a kind of Rosetta Stone (Lidwell et al. 2010), a
parallel language for understanding people and interpreting their context. As a key, or element
of common understanding, for comprehending people, empathy is a natural fit. Indeed, it is a
universal human process that is capable of understanding others outside of our in-group.
Happiness and sadness, like language, are universal concepts. Perhaps what evokes feelings
differs culture to culture, but the fact that experiences evoke feelings is a starting point for
curiosity about others: "what is it like?" for example when referring to an experience.
Empathy is the frame (Lidwell, et al. 2010) through which we see another person's
feelings accurately. "She lost a family member" rather than "the war was won" is a contrast
between two frames. The first is intimate and empathetic, while the other is impersonal and
congratulatory. These kinds of framing are often used for constructing a view of others. Frames
are usually associated with propaganda or other types of political messaging. However,
empathy is a frame as well for thinking about others.
Empathy tries to bring others of often divergent groups to our moral community, whereas
the merely sympathetic tends to divide those others from us. When we empathize, we see
ourselves as having something in common with others. When we sympathize, we merely pity
the person and in doing so, we separate their circumstances from ours. Or, in the words of the
great essayist James Baldwin in "Everybody's Protest Novel," from Notes of a Native Son:
Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of
dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to
experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and
violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty (Baldwin 1998).
Indeed, the superficial notion is that empathy is a warm, cozy feeling with the other. We
"get along", we find a lot in common with each other. Before empathy can happen, however, we
have to experience a certain uneasy feeling, especially if the other suffers. That feeling is that
the other person is very like us, and yet different in condition, which makes it necessary for us to
imagine that other person's context.
We think of information design as quite different; it is an impersonal practice rooted in
numbers and not emotions. In fact, numbers and statistics can dull our sense of feeling for
others. However, things in the environment are information if they have differences from each
other; even a blank page in a book is data if the other pages are not blank. Emotions are
analogue information, meaning that they are along a continuum; that is, one does not feel hate
or love, but levels of either. Facts are either true or false, so their discreteness is analogous to
We design with empathy, rather than for empathy. We design advertisements and other
campaigns to appeal to people's hopes. This is designing with empathy. Why not, then, design
for people's best hopes for other people? This would be designing for empathy. The website
www.humansofnewyork.com offers a case in point. The site has street portraits and anecdotes
from many different New Yorkers, and the site's visitors get a sense that they are meeting these
ordinary people, from the homeless to businesspeople. These empathetic yet unsentimental
portraits keep the subjects in control of their own stories by providing their own words rather
than the photographer playing the part of the omniscient narrator in control of how these stories
are told. Controlling another person's story turns that person into an object of his or her own
experiences rather than the subject of them. Compare:
"My parents have died and I don't know what to do."
"Her parents have died and she doesn't know where to turn and I pity her."
The first sentence invites a person's empathy and perhaps some heartfelt advice. The second,
to which the omniscient narrator could add words, could simply tell the other person how to feel.
There is a directness and effortlessness to the first that makes it poignant. The effortful quality
of the second may make people suspicious about whether the child deserves empathy, since
the omniscient narrator is self-conscious about telling us to feel something.
We must understand first that information design for empathy is information design
about people and their situations. This practice is most essential, but is certainly not limited to,
when the people we are empathizing with suffer. By identifying as a subjective source, non-
propaganda can increase credibility by author identification and ownership of the information (cf.
Edward Tufte, a statistician and information designer, in his book Beautiful Evidence) (Tufte
2006). Personal stories and stories about individuals are just such information.
A comparison between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Persepolis, with some other references,
is instructive for comparing the supposedly objective propaganda that evokes sympathy, with
the honestly subjective story that evokes empathy.
Rule #1: Make the object of empathy a subject in his
or her own story.
The first rule that Persepolis follows is to make the object of empathy a subject in his or
her own story; empty sentiment keeps the object of empathy an object. Objects of sentiment
are never agents in their own stories; they simply have things done to them. An example of
keeping an object of empathy frozen thus is in Uncle Tom's Cabin, when Eliza is portrayed after
escaping her master as
"A young and slender woman, with garments torn and frozen, with one shoe gone, and the
stocking torn away from the cut and bleeding foot, was laid back in a deadly swoon upon two
chairs (Stowe 2007)."
Whereas, the protagonist of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, in her characterization of
herself, never relies on this kind of sentimental boilerplate to describe her experiences. She
makes herself an actor in her own story. She sardonically comments about her time as a
homeless person who almost died of bronchitis: "it was a trivial love affair that almost did me in
(Satrapi & Parannoud 2007)." Because she makes mistakes and triumphs just like we do, we
are willing to put ourselves in her place for the story. Because Eliza makes no mistakes and
does not triumph in any significant way, we are not as willing to put ourselves in her place as
people who can imagine what it is like to be her. The point of empathetic identification is not to
confirm one's idea of a person, however flattering that may be. Instead, we must identify with
people as they are, even with their faults. This phenomenon is what keeps Eliza an object in
her own story.
Rule #2: Keep the story about one person if possible
Another rule Persepolis follows is to make the story about one person if possible, not an
anonymous crowd. People relate better to the former than to the latter, in keeping with the
observation that numbers can numb compassion.
A study by Small, et al. showed that people were more willing to donate money to
children in Africa if they were told one girl's story than if they were shown statistics about
starvation in Africa (2007). This study would seem to show that compassion is a limited
resource that we cannot extend to many others. However, this would be wrong. Instead of
being unfeeling towards large numbers of people, we actually feel so powerless in the face of so
much suffering that we do less than we otherwise would have done as a result of emotion
regulation (Cameron & Payne 2011).
We may feel a certain bond with others, but empathy is for perspectives, and there is
one person per perspective. Thus, we can feel empathy for one person at a time, even if that
time is in the milliseconds it takes for neurons to fire. If we imagine what life was like aboard a
slave ship, we are empathizing only with what an individual, not the whole group, would have
felt. We can, however, have compassion (different from empathy) for the group of slaves as a