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Empathy is what sets human beings apart from all other creatures. Whales may have bigger brains and mosquitoes may be more prolific but no other creatures are able to put themselves in the shoes of others and experience how they might feel. Empathy is basic to effective persuasion.

Neuroscience has proven this to be true in recent years through the use of the fMRI (The functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology). Human beings are born, with very rare exceptions, with the mirror neurons in the brain that enable us to experience, at an emotional level, the hopes, fears and emotional reactions of others. That results in caring about the experiences of others and that has profound social and political outcomes.

Now that doesn’t mean that empathy can’t be suppressed by various kinds of conditioning. If people are convinced from childhood that they should be thinking only of self, they may operate in a decidedly non-empathic manner. And a more primitive personal trait of self preservation may overcome empathy in a life threatening situation, either real or imagined. This characteristic of self preservation can be expanded by conditions to demonstrate that people should think strongly about self interest and reject empathy. The tendency then is to believe that thinking in a “self interest” way is the “rational” way to think, unemotionally. Not true.

This is a hard sell! But there is a fundamental difference between empathic thinking and self interest thinking that has important implications for ethical political and economic thought.

Since empathy is so strongly ingrained in our genetic makeup, persuading and influencing people is best centered on the idea of caring for one another. If that is framed in the correct way it will overpower the self interest approach. But we have to understand that in order for the message to be convincing andeffective it has to connect at an emotional level. Neuroscience has confirmed what great thinkers and artists have always known. Human beings make decisions in the subconscious at a “feeling level” and then try to justify their decision on the basis of objective evidence: facts statistics, quotations, examples, expert opinion and logic and reason etc. The problem is that, in spite of scientific evidence, most people refuse to believe that they have made the decision at an emotional level based on their long held, belief systems.

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