Empathetic Civilization

A few months ago, I wrote about normalizing struggle a discussion of failure and a call-to-action for everyone to be more open about that fact that they struggle (because everyone does).

Well, some science happened and it more than validates my viewpoint.

So what’s up? Well, they divided some 10th-grade students into three groups, who read three different different descriptions of Curie, Einstein, and Faraday. The first group only read about the scientists’ accomplishments; the second group read about the scientists’ personal struggles against sexism, classism, and Nazis; and the third group read about the scientists’ intellectual struggles of how difficult it was to accomplish their respective achievements. In other words, the second two groups were shown how similar the scientists were to themselves – they were shown to empathize with the scientists.

Then they measures the students’ science grades.

After six weeks, the two groups who learned about how the scientists struggled significantly improved their science grades and increased their motivation to study science. The lowest performing students showed the greatest gains.

Meanwhile, the students who learned only about the scientists’ achievements performed worse. They believed the scientists were innately gifted—unlike themselves.

Wow. There’s a lot to break down here, so let’s do this!

Normalizing struggle helped students learn. But more than that, the students who needed the most help got the most out of this experience.

Think about that: not only is this an effective means of improving academic performance, but it’s more effective the more it’s needed. As far as bang-for-buck analysis of educational tools go, this is a no-brainer!

But consider the last nugget: students who only learned of the achievements of these scientists got worse. That’s remarkable – it suggests that not only does normalizing struggle help students, but failing to do so actually harms students. The implications are striking: not only is this empathetic approach to education an effective way of helping students, but the educational status quo actually does more harm than good.


I’m growing more and more convinced that we need a complete social and educational reform that centres how we organize ourselves on empathy for our fellow humans. Anything less than that will lead us to our own extinction.

The challenges humanity is facing – the existential threat of a changing climate being chief among them – are challenges of such a scale that no former or current socio-political structure is capable of addressing. I’m so frequently frustrated because technology was supposed to help us fix these problems, but it hasn’t. It hasn’t at all.

Buckminster Fuller wrote in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth:

Now in 1969, 99.9 per cent of the accelerating accelerations of the physical environment changes effecting all humanity’s evolution are transpiring in the realms of the electromagnetic spectrum realities which […] will leave humanity, if it survives, cast up upon an island of universal success uncomprehending how it has all happened.

Half that prediction has come to pass: we’re here, wondering how we got here, but we’re far from universal success. Things are improving, yes, but we’re far from achieving our full potential, and far from the successful species we need to be to survive.

Empathy helps us. It helps us understand each other, solve problems, and learn. We’re seeing this idea borne out by research – this isn’t just an idea for drum circles, that this helps us all achieve more. But we’re held back by the momentum of our existing, broken socio-political system.

But we can change all that.

I’ll leave you with the closing thought from Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual.

So, planners, architects, and engineers take the initiative. Go to work, and above all co-operate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived.

Let’s get to work.


Posted on February 26, 2016