In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

Ruth's sensible footwear
Ruth’s sensible footwear

REPRISED FROM A OCTOBER 2015 BLOG POST

Six years ago marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girl (Tim Firth) for Dewdney Players in Alberta. It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of the role of “Ruth Reynoldson”.

Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently.  Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my own. I learned to empathize with that character.

What is empathy and why does it matter?

It may surprise you to know that the concept of empathy is a relatively new one. In her article in The Atlantic, Susan Lazoni provides a nice overview of the term’s 100 year old history. 

“Empathy” is a translation of the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling-in”.  At the time the term was coined, it was defined as not only a “means to feel another person’s emotion…” but to “enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.”

The set of Calendar Girls Rotary Performing Arts Centre Okotoks, Alberta
Striking the set

And who doesn’t appreciate the idea of empathy? It only makes sense that the better we relate to the plights of others, the more that we respond kindly, ethically, morally, respectfully to them. Nicholas Kristoff suggests, though, that we have slumped into an “empathy gap”; a place where we have lost our capacity to understand another’s troubles. Our cognitive ‘muscles’ have become a bit sluggish, so says Kristoff.

“Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you…” – Denise Cummins, 2013.

“Feeling in”: What can we learn about empathy from the acting profession

Our first (very human) reaction is to dismiss people, things, and messages that run counter to our world views. We are naturally protective of our personal beliefs. We automatically seek out information that informs, supports and validates those beliefs.

Kevin deLaplante hosts a terrific podcast with an episode entitled “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts”.  In order to carry out their craft, actors need to understand the background, the mindset, the limitations and the possibilities of the character they are to portray.  They need to slip into that role with authenticity. They need to “be” the character and “live” the story through eyes that are often very different from their own.

We spend time having conversations with others about health, food and food production, science, politics, religion and a range of other (often controversial) topics. We constantly struggle to understand positions that are diametrically opposed to our own because that is part of the age-old human condition. In order to overcome this, we need to cultivate communication skills that force us to challenge our personal biases. Take a cue from performers:

“[They] cultivate the ability to empty themselves; to forget who they are and totally and completely become someone else.” – Kevin deLaplante.

Having tough conversations is hard work, but worth it!

Having conversations about controversial topics is hard work.  Here are a few things to think about (adapted from deLaplante) as we move forward in those conversations:

  • Understand the positions of both advocates and skeptics:
    1. Be willing to put yourself in another’s head (and heart) space and be prepared to dwell in those spaces for a while
    2. Understand how we (all of us) process information (our cognitive biases and intellectual habits)
    3. Identify beliefs, values, and assumptions that drive opinions and behaviors (including your own)
  • Commit to reconstructing the reasoning that has led to deeply held beliefs (including your own)
  • Remember, it’s a conversation, not a conversion
  • Value truth, understanding, the relationship, and the person above everything else

As Iida Ruishalme so artfully asks and answers in her article here:

“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgmental, appealing to science, or someone he or she perceives as a friend, who is tolerant of his or her viewpoint, who wishes to understand? I don’t know if I could be that understanding friend. But I know I would like to be.” – Iida Ruishalme

I aspire to be that kind of friend and conversationalist, too.

Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes

Me as “Ruth Reynoldson”

There is nothing like donning sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan, and appropriating the thoughts and emotions of a story’s character. In the world of theatre, exercising empathy is an important process in understanding and adopting a character’s identity and motivation. It’s about building, animating, and authenticating a story.

“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I grew to love as I took on the role for the play. For the duration of the production, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and…

... I even learned a little bit more about myself!

“Walk a mile…” they say ’cause everyone has a story. Understanding the whole story – the ‘bigger picture’ – takes time, commitment, empathy, critical thought and a lot of self-awareness. Mind you, the whole (story) is even greater than the sum of its parts. So, investing in that kind of conversation is worth the effort.

References:

Farmers grow more with less and that’s good news for everyone!

I had the opportunity to spend a day at our Jerseyville R&D Farm with the #WiSE group. Here’s what I learned!

The Closer You Get… the fear and disgust response

32 years ago today, Blair and I were in a serious car accident. It was soon after we were (first) married and I was pregnant with our first son. You don’t know our son Abraham because Abraham didn’t survive.

As I often do, I like to write my way through things. It helps me to understand myself and the world that I live in. I’ve always journaled. And some of my journal entries I’ve turned into public blog posts (edited, of course).

So, here’s one about that tragic time in our lives. Warning: a lot of it is “sciencey”. It is about the human cognitive and behavioral response to tragedy and how that can shape the way we view risk (fear); the way we perceive others and the world (with fear). It’s also about mind-numbing and soul-sucking depression – if you care to read between the lines.

Excerpt: “There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.”

More here….

Food fads and grey matters

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) is one of my favorite writers. And while I can easily spend hours pouring over her thoughtful and creative prose and poetry, I also love this quote of hers:

“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”

I ran across her quote today and it prompted me to pull this blog post out of the archives… a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. It’s tough work but now, more than ever, critical thinking is vital in navigating our information rich world.

More here

Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

villain

What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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My Science Love Story

SAIFood Blog recently allowed me to take up a bit of their ‘online real estate’ to share my thoughts on storytelling and science communication. An excerpt:

“…the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection.”

“Sure, Cami. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? What’s your story?”

I’m glad you asked. This short, animated video documents my evolving ‘love story’ with science. And you might be in for a surprise. How that love affair started had very little to do with the science that was being done.

(story by me; illustrations by me; narration by me)

What’s your story? How are you going to tell it?

story of science

The power of storytelling…

This Valentine’s Day, share the love… of a story. Paul Zak says so….

He examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the ‘neuroscience of the narrative’. According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust. Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy. Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.

Here’s my story… My Science Love Story. I wrote, narrated, and illustrated it and The Journal of Stories in Science (a project by the STEM Advocacy Institute) was kind enough to provide a platform for it. Enjoy. 

In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

I just picked up Paul Bloom’s latest book “Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion”… I’m about halfway through (and enjoying it) and it reminded me of this blog post that I wrote last year: “In Her Shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations“…

The slippery world of predatory publishing and what it means for scientific integrity

I clearly recall the first time I saw an article that I co-wrote in print in an academic journal. It was exhilarating. While I knew that the ‘real world’ (friends and family) would likely never read it, for me it was a visible, tangible record of my accomplishment and a signal to my peers that this young scholar had “arrived” in the academic world.

publsihed

I’ve Been Published! For an academic, research is the daily work and publications coming out of that research are a public record of that research. Only when an article is published can others truly examine the research, critique the results and attempt to replicate it. Replication of research is the one of the main principles of the scientific method.

In a way, peer-reviewed publications are a form of currency and trade in academic circles. How often and what kind of journals you publish in becomes a gauge of your proficiency or ‘brand’ as an academic. It can play a huge role in one’s career advancement.

The quality of a publication is measured through citations and impact. How often an article is cited can be indicative of the substance of the work that one does or serve as evidence of follow-on or related research arguments or observations. The impact factor of a journal, itself, is a proxy for the relative importance of a journal in each field of work. The higher the impact factor, the more scholarly cachet an article published in that journal has (for more info, check out “Peer Review in 3 Minutes“).

The overarching objective for a scholar (say, a social scientist like me) is to impact policy in some meaningful way. In many cases, the work that scientists produce leads to important innovations that serve public good more broadly (think seatbelts, GPS, flu shots, or solar cells). Publishing such works is not only meant to be a record of public dollar investment in important research, it is also an important part of the value chain that brings new innovations to people that need them.

The Problem with Publishing 1.0 While academic journals are a very important part of the knowledge and innovation value chain, many have not (necessarily) been readily accessible for most people. They are often hidden behind user pay-walls. So, even if my dad or my sister wanted to read one of my journal articles, they probably couldn’t access it – even if I gave them a bread crumb trail (a URL, for example).

The promise of “open access” (OA) was hoped to remedy all of that with the assurance of accessibility for everyone. It certainly raised expectations for those of us that valued the whole notion of openness.

The Problem with Publishing 2.0 Yet this promising new world of easy online access and share-ability also cultivated a new and unsavory market for less trustworthy model known as “predatory publishing”. These publishers have questionable business models that spam scientists with emails enticing them to publish in journals that guarantee quick turn around in terms of the peer review process in exchange for a “fee” (see this).  Make no mistake, these publishers are in it for the money. (And with that money, predatory publishers are starting to buy up legitimate journals).

Two things come out of this:

  1. Predatory publishers attract authors with politically-driven agendas who understand the space and take advantage of peer-review shortcomings, and;
  2. They also trick good scholars into submitting good scientific works into spaces that ultimately de-value that work.

Why do I care? Two words: scientific integrity.

social-losses

Back to my story and the first time that I saw one of my articles in print. Through appropriate peer review, my work had earned a place in reputable scholarly space that could be recognized, replicated, and further peer-reviewed. I was proud of that accomplishment. It was a mark of my research abilities and a signal to my peers as to the quality of my work.

Unfortunately, OA and its promise for accessibility has been blemished with the introduction and rapid growth of predatory publishing industry and little to no peer review. Scientific integrity is at risk. As scholars, we need to distinguish the good journals from those ‘other ones’. As consumers, we need to think critically about how science is represented in the media.

science-is-all-around-us

Science is all around us. It is in architecture (in our homes and the buildings we work in), in the mechanics of our cars, and in the technology of cell phones. It is in our medicine and food and in how we produce both. If agenda-driven or poorly peer-reviewed science is making its way into downstream spaces of media and social media there are implications for society. This creates unnecessary barriers for socially and economically valuable innovations through misrepresentation of science and technologies.

When scientific integrity is at risk, so is society. We should all care.

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Sources:

Beall, Jeffrey. (2016). Scholarly Open Access: Available online at: https://scholarlyoa.com/

Giddings, Val. (2013) Peer Review – where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning! Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Available online at: https://itif.org/publications/2013/07/12/peer-review-%E2%80%93-where-you-thought-it-ended-that%E2%80%99s-just-beginning

Rennie, D. (2010). “Integrity in Scientific Publishing.” Health Services Research. June. 45(3). Available online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875766/

Rennie D., Yank V., Emanuel L. (1997). “When authorship fails. A proposal to make contributors accountable.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. Aug 20;278(7):579-85

Ryan, Camille and John Vicini. (2016). Why You Should Avoid Predatory Journals, Welcome Rigorous Review. Forbes. Available online at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/06/30/predatory-journals/#410a888a5558

Retraction Watch. Available online at: http://retractionwatch.com/

White, E. (2011). “The Peer Review Process: Benefit or Detriment to Quality Scholarly Journal Publication.” Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology. Volume 13, Issue 1. Available online at: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1185&context=totem

Why is a social scientist working at Monsanto?

I am often asked, “Why does a social scientist work for Monsanto?” That’s a good question. An even better question – and one I am asked even more often – is… What is a social scientist?

A social scientist is interested in relationships; relationships between people and relationships between people and the social environment (think ‘life’, ‘work’, ‘family’, etc). The social sciences cover a wide range of disciplines that including things like anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, language studies, psychology, and sociology. (Check out my background here)

Why the social sciences matter in today’s complex food environment

It’s no secret that there have been hits and misses in Monsanto’s communications history. For the longest time, Monsanto focused its communication efforts on its customers – the farmers, in addition to its shareholders and its employees. During the past several years however, people – consumers – started having new and often heated conversations about food and food production. There is a great deal of misinformation circulating out there about modern agriculture and, more often than not, Monsanto is often the ‘lightening rod’ in some very emotionally charged dialogues.

We realized that our greatest challenge may not be in advancing the technology; rather, in helping people understand the importance of that technology. We needed to engage in these conversations.  Traditional communication models – ones that Monsanto relied on for so many years – just don’t work in our information-rich, social-media-driven world. We need to reach consumers in new and unexpected ways; we need to meet people where they are, virtually and in real life.

What does a social scientist – like me – contribute to a company like Monsanto?

My job at Monsanto is to help navigate the murky space of misinformation; to cultivate understanding as to what drives people’s perceptions and beliefs about food and food production. This means digging into the research on public perceptions, behavioral economics, human behavior, sociology of agriculture and food production and other related fields. I am also a resource for my colleagues here at Monsanto to help find new and better ways to reach out to and engage people in conversations that are meaningful.

Humans make decisions or form conclusions in interesting ways. What we think we are talking about isn’t always what we are talking about. Confused? Me too. For example, we might think that we know all about topic “A”, while not even knowing anything about the related and important items of “B” or “C”. Even still, we move on to form conclusions at point “D” – because “D” confirms our biases and “D” reflects the shared understandings of our close, personal networks. Suddenly, though, the dialogue takes a turn! It has moved way, way past “E” and, sadly, “E” may be where the important conversations should take place!

It’s pretty easy to get distracted by the low-hanging fruit of misinformation and our confirmation biases. We all do it. But food production and food security is about more than just GMOs (think ‘food waste and storage’, ‘climate change’, ‘distribution’, etc). We need to work past our biases if we are to resolve some of our most pressing food security problems.We are all consumers. We need to connect with one another in meaningful ways and, more importantly, we at Monsanto need to reach out and collaborate with multiple stakeholders. Science just isn’t enough. If we lead with the science, we quickly lose the ‘social’ so it’s hard for people to relate to us and for us to build trust. We need to broaden our conversations to include our stories; the “why” behind our science. We need to identify what’s missing in our conversations about food and food security because back-and-forth debates that polarize don’t really serve the public good.

In our society, food is so much more than sustenance. I once heard food referred to as a “universe.” There’s no doubt that food is an important part of the social fabric for all societies. It is the gathering place where we connect as human beings and where we share stories. Understanding the complex, fascinating, colorful, ever-changing “food universe” is an important part of my work as a social scientist at Monsanto.

This is why I work for Monsanto and this is why I love my job.

(For more insights into me, my work, check out my virtual chat with Katie Pinke

[this was originally posted on LinkedIn]