2 How the Griff works

outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

Empathy may seem like a weird thing to spot and track. What can it possibly have to do with our future?

Well, we all listened to the 2020 Democratic nomination of Joe Biden. The term “empathy” featured so prominently, it has been called the theme of the conference.

“Asked and answered,” you might say. “The Dems were distinguishing themselves from Trump, a man widely seen not to care about the feelings of others.”

Well, yes, and no. The point is that all presidents are now measured on their empathy. With Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Nixon no one cared.

In fact, the Google Ngram (below) suggests that empathy didn’t use to matter at all. And then it began rising steadily.

Google Ngram Viewer on “empathy”

And this leaves us with a question: why the stratospheric rise? What is it about empathy that appeals to us so deeply? Why is this a feature of contemporary culture? Why does so much “heat” attend the term?

So, yes, I am keeping a watch on empathy and the puzzle it represents.

The software I’m using here is called TheBrain. It helps us visualize all the things we’re trying to track. And it allows us to attach research materials to any one of our tiles.

If we click on the term “empathy” below…

outtake from Griff, with red rectangle around the term Empathy

…we can see what’s beneath the empathy tile.

There are a variety of data points. Some are blog posts. One is the Wikipedia entry for empathy. The Ngram data is there. I had a conversation with Lenore Skenazy that touched on it. This is stored in Notion, and I have a pointer to it there. And you can see me asking myself “does empathy make a diffusion journey?” This is me wondering whether “empathy” began in some corner or class of our culture and spread.

This subentry also captures a passage I have clipped from a good book by Susan Lanzoni on the topic. (See on the right-hand side of the image below.) I have a strong hunch that Lanzoni’s definition of empathy is NOT the one now circulating so widely. And that’s a “finding” all on its own.

So the watch is on. I will continue to look for evidence that tells me what the empathy trend is, where it comes from, where it’s going, and what our interest in empathy tells us about the state of American culture.

By itself, this tiny fragment of American culture is neither here nor there. It doesn’t really tell us very much. But added to lots of other fragments, it begins to give us a larger picture, something like a map. Especially when we wire this map up with ethnographic data (person to person, talking data), survey data, statistical data and someday, AI.

As we approach the completion of this map, there will be strange and wonderful discoveries. Take, for instance, what happens when we ask Google Trends to break out empathy data by state. It turns out (below) that the part of the US where people are least interested in empathy is Washington, D.C. How very telling!

Published by Grant McCracken

I am an anthropologist who studies American culture. Some of my books: Dark Value, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer and Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. I've taught at Harvard Business School and MIT. I am a self funding anthropologist. I spent half the year writing and half the year consulting.

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