Empathy Needs Stories

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“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

 In April more than 200 girls were kidnapped from their school in the North East of Nigeria. When the media began to carry the news I knew something was wrong. They kept talking about the numbers and even though I am Nigerian, I could not relate. The reports were so sketchy I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. It bothered me for a while and suddenly I was able to put my thoughts together one Saturday in April. I sent messages to my friends one of who’s father grew up in Chibok and hails from Borno state. “Thinking about the kidnapped girls, the story feels unreal, there’s no human face, we don’t have pictures, names, of the girls, of parents, family”.  We then took to twitter and joined the #BringBackOurGirls campaign

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Psychologists Deborah Small and George Loewenstein have shown that our empathy wilts in the face of statistical reasoning. Their research suggests that people can empathize deeply with identified individuals, but wanes when confronted with statistics of mass suffering.

 “In one study, people were more likely to give to charity when told the personal story of a single hungry girl than when confronted with statistics of millions like her. The hungry girl’s story by itself even induced more generosity than when it was combined with those statistics.”

This is important in fields like User Experience, because what makes the difference is empathy. Stories are told using many forms; Personas, Comics, User Journeys, all these things engender empathy and must not be dismissed instead we should seek to do better with these tools. We need to relate with and remember the people whose stories we tell, they aren’t just mere users but actual living and breathing people.

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Related Paper

Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims,” Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein, Paul Slovic; Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, March 2007.

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2 thoughts on “Empathy Needs Stories

  1. Pingback: Research: Mere Users or Real People? | Antonia Anni

  2. Pingback: 2 Lessons From TWOWS | Antonia Anni

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