Can empathy hurt reform?

The Complex Role of Empathy: How Framing Messages Impacts Policy Support

Can empathy hurt reform?
This explains so much! DEI scholars may want to give this one a quick read.

Storytelling.

I discovered this curious finding in policy and framing research while working towards improving my capacity for storytelling. Curious about how to improve, I (naturally) went to YouTube and found this TEDx video by Dr. Nat Kendall-Taylor:

In this video, he presents startling findings as to the impact of empathy on the advancement of policy reform. I created this heatmap to summarize the results of the study:

This visual is a heatmap essentially showing red (low values) across the board for empathy and blue for other messages.
Click here to interact with this visualization.

What you see above is a measure of the change in policy support following the participants' random assignment to messages about addiction policies in Canada that were framed using prevention, interdependence, ingenuity, and empathy.

Overall, framing the message with empathy (i.e., we need to identify with people with a substance use disorder and treat them compassionately) generally resulted in DECREASED support for policy reforms.

This got me thinking...

Why would framing a message for social change around empathy reduce support for policy changes?

I sat down as flashbacks throughout my career were delivered as examples of when I attempted to use empathy to create urgency around advancing science education reforms related to justice and equity. What was the response to such framing?

Well, it's been quite polarizing.

Just like that, I was sent pouring over the literature around framing and messaging to find an answer, and I think I have one:

While empathy builds crucial connections, it may not inspire action. Research suggests leading with empathy reduces support for systemic reforms, as it focuses on individuals over structures.

This results from our psychology and culture in a rather individualistic Western society. Suppose we recognize an issue as related to an individual. In that case, we expect that individual to overcome the problem and (could) find it repellent that society needs to offer support.

This brings on more questions:

  • Which components of a message can clash with a culture or individual's worldview?
  • Why do humans tend to maintain a status quo among us?
  • How does framing differ from tone policing?

But more than anything, I want to know:

How can a message be framed to optimize support for systemic reforms?

a. As science educators, we aspire to cultivate our students' innate curiosity and capacity for discovery. By engaging students in real-world inquiry, we can pave the way for future innovators and progress. Through collaborative reform, we can share our passion for exploration by focusing on observable phenomena and students' curiosity versus rote assessment. b. Science education extinguishes curiosity through passive lectures and memorization drills. Administrators cling to an outdated model that resists necessary reforms for ideological reasons. Educators must urgently implement top-down standardization of inquiry-centered teaching methods to address this crisis.

Reply with why, and stay tuned for more about the Impact of Framing.


Paper of the Week

This week, we're sharing Dr. Nat Kendall-Taylor's paper, from which the data presented in the above heatmap was collected. Dive in to learn more about how the impact of framing was measured (PDF is available for download here in our blog post).

Science Education Community Highlights

We want to highlight a paper and an interesting initiative going on this week in Science Education:

  • Dr. Jacky Deng and fellow CAS Future Leaders with ACS released an excellent paper on science mentorship and leadership: click to read.
  • Professor Caroline Hu's Science Communication and Comics course at the Massachusetts College of Art of Design is recruiting scientists for the Spring 2024 collaboration! Don't miss this chance to work with a student and bring your research to life: click to learn more.
Got a question? We're accepting questions about The Impact of Framing to be addressed in future content.
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