Empathology: The science of being someone else

You know that thing Bran does in Game of Thrones? Where his eyes go milky and he inhabits the body of another person or creature? That's what makes him a warg, or skin-changer. It's a useful gift if you are the disabled son of House Stark, fleeing for your life. It's even more useful if you are a marketer.

The ability to see things from someone else's point of view is known as empathy. It's a relative newcomer to the English language, adapted from the word Einfühlung ('feeling into'), which was coined by those touchy-feely Germans to convey the idea of sharing another person's emotions. It differs from sympathy, which is the ability to understand and feel sorry for others. Empathy involves emotional engagement with someone by temporarily taking over their identity. Not just standing in their shoes, but feeling their blisters. An empath is someone who has unusual sensitivity to other people's feelings. A psychopath has none.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." –To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Empathy is a key attribute of emotional intelligence, or EQ, which is prized by some companies almost as highly as IQ. If you want to get on in an organisation, you have to get on with people first. It's also a component of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), which enables you to build trust with other people by observing and mirroring their behaviour and language, including their body language. Coincidentally, functional MRI studies have found that high empathy levels are associated with 'mirror neurons' in the cortex.

"Before you criticise someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticise them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes." - Jack Handey

The ability to empathise is useful not just for individuals but organisations. In his book Wired to Care, business strategy consultant Dev Patnaik explains that companies like Nike, Harley-Davidson and IBM are 'Open Empathy Organisations' that owe their success to an empathic approach to customers. This gives them an advantage in identifying opportunities, adapting to change, and creating a sense of mission in their employees. Relying on Big Data rather than human understanding distances companies from consumers, so empathic organisations carry out regular exercises to remind their staff what it is like to be one of their customers. They immerse themselves in their customer's world like method actors.

"The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit." - Barack Obama

"My IQ is one of the highest - and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure; it's not your fault." - Donald Trump

Not everyone is convinced about the power of empathy in business. The Yale psychologist and TED talker Paul Bloom argues in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion that empathy has its limits, and unless it is balanced by rationality it can lead to bad decisions. However, studies by the Management Research Group found that empathy was a strong predictor of ethical leadership behaviour and management effectiveness.

For anyone working in marketing, exercising empathy is a way of gaining insight into how people will react to your products, services and communications. (Insight is another word we borrowed from the emotionally-literate Germans.)

Recently we've been discussing the difficulty many people have in assessing creative ideas. It's a particular problem in our business because we work in a research-based industry inhabited mainly by scientifically-trained people, who put a premium on objective evidence. They only trust things they can quantitatively measure, so they can analyse, compare and benchmark their relative effectiveness.

Judging creative ideas, on the other hand, is a subjective, qualitative process. It is heavily affected by individual preference, which in turn is influenced by personal experience and prejudice. The problem is further compounded when we have to gauge how an idea will appeal to other people - namely, our customers.

This requires us not just to adopt a stranger's point of view, but to temporarily abandon our own. The trick is to wipe the slate clean of your individual knowledge, beliefs and experience about the subject, clearing your memory cache like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch. Only when you empty your mind can you fully absorb the views of others. This is a rare gift, even within creative agencies; we all carry our personal luggage, and it is hard to leave it at the door when we are closely involved in a brand or project. But if you master the art of serial identity theft, you can achieve true insight.

Come to think of it, what Bran does in GoT is not that impressive, as he simply transports his personality into another person's body. That's just extra-somatic projection. What would be more useful is to occupy someone else's thoughts and senses - to live in their emotional skin and feel what they feel. That is true empathy.

The secret of personal fulfilment, they say, is to be yourself. The secret of effective marketing is to be someone else, one person at a time.

P.S. If you remain a slave to quantitative metrics, here is a tool to assess your Empathy Quotient. If you are off the scale, don't blame us: we know how you feel.