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Business and Finance

Empathy and self-reference

Emily Lundquist
New research suggests that the more empathetic we are, the more likely we are to believe that our customers' preferences match our own. Can social media data limit this effect?

In The Empathy Era, Belinda Parmar argues in favour of a shift in business, suggesting that empathy increases recruitment and retention of talented women, improves relationships with customers and shareholders, and contributes to higher profits.

This importance is underscored by an ever-increasing emphasis on social media. As Parmar writes, “We have become enabled as consumers, as followers, as voters and as fans, to talk directly to those at the top of the food chain.” This transparency is eliminating the distance between businesses and their customers; fostering those relationships demands “a much more empathetic approach.”

Empathy or projection?

Parmar’s conclusion was the starting point for a recent study conducted at Imperial College London. The results demonstrated that managers who had higher levels of empathy also exhibited more egocentric behaviour. In other words, putting themselves in their customers’ shoes actually led the individuals to project their own preferences onto the customer.

Dr. Johannes Hattula, the study’s lead, summarised the findings in the March 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review: “It’s assumed that when you’re empathetic, that’s good. You know your customer. We questioned this entire idea, and the results suggest that we have to think more carefully about this empathy approach, because it can backfire.”

The study required nearly 500 marketing managers to take on the consumer point of view in decisions regarding product development, communication management, pricing, and celebrity endorsement.

“We consistently found that managers’ predictions about customers’ needs matched the personal preferences of the managers themselves. Second, and even more surprising, we found that predictions of empathic managers were much more self-referential than those of non-empathic managers,” explains Dr. Hattula.

“Even when managers were given objective market research data on customer preferences to support their prediction process, the self-referential effect of empathy held.”

Social mediating

This direct correlation between levels of empathy and egocentricity is particularly interesting in the age of social media. Does the accessibility of consumer data mitigate or advance the observed phenomenon? In other words, can a savvy social media manager take a step back from those proverbial shoes?

Additional research would be needed to answer this question, but Dr. Hattula gives it a conditional yes.

“Social media has the big advantage in that it provides valuable qualitative insights about customer needs and motivation”, Dr. Hattula says. “If you follow a conversation between customers talking about their personal goals, their likes and dislikes, you get a good understanding of the forces driving their behaviour and choices. You might be less predisposed to think about yourself when you’re asked to make predictions about them.’

‘I would speculate that if used effectively, it can be a powerful tool to help managers reduce self-reference.”

Image credit: CC Jason Howie

putting themselves in their customers’ shoes actually led the individuals to project their own preferences onto the customer

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