49 stories

On This Day in 1945, Japan Released Me from a POW Camp. Then US Pilots Saved My Life

1 Comment and 2 Shares

It was noon on August 15th, 1945. The Japanese Emperor had just announced to his people that his country had surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Powers.

To those of us being held at Ohashi Prison Camp in the mountains of northern Japan, where we’d been prisoners of war performing forced labour at a local iron mine, this meant freedom. But freedom didn’t necessarily equate to safety. The camp’s 395 POWs, about half of them Canadians, were still under the effective control of Japanese troops. And so we began negotiating with them about what would happen next.

Complicating the negotiations was the Japanese military code of Bushido, which required an officer to die fighting or commit suicide (seppuku) rather than accept defeat. We also knew that the camp commander—First Lieutenant Yoshida Zenkichi—had written orders to kill his prisoners “by any means at his disposal” if their rescue seemed imminent. We also knew that we could all easily be deposited in a local mine shaft and then buried under thousands of tons of rock for all eternity without a trace.

We had no way of notifying Allied military commanders (who still hadn’t landed in Japan) as to the location of the camp (about a hundred miles north of Sendai, in a mountainous area near Honshu’s eastern coast), whose existence was then unknown. Because of the devastating American bombing, Japan’s cities had been reduced to rubble, its institutions were in chaos, and millions of Japanese were themselves close to starvation, much like us. The camp itself had food supplies, such as they were, for just three days.

Lieut. Zenkichi seemed angry, and felt humiliated by the surrender. Yet he appeared willing to negotiate our status. And after some stressful hours, we reached an agreement: The Japanese guards would be dismissed from the camp, while a detachment of Kenpeitai (the much feared Military Police) would provide security for Zenkichi, who would confine himself to his office.

The author, who appears in the featured image, fourth from left in the top row

To our delight, the local Japanese farmers were friendly, and agreed to give us food in exchange for some of the items we’d managed to loot from the camp’s remaining inventory—though, unfortunately, not enough to feed the camp. Meanwhile, through a secret radio we’d been operating, we learned that the Americans were going to conduct an aerial grid search of Japan’s islands for prison camps. We followed the broadcasted instructions and immediately painted “P.O.W.” in eight-foot-high white letters on the roof of the biggest hut.

Two days later, with all of our food gone, we heard a murmur from the direction of the ocean. The sound turned into the throb of a single-engine airplane flying at about 3,000 feet altitude. Then, suddenly he was above us—a little blue fighter with the white stars of the US Navy painted on its wings and fuselage. But the engine noise began to fade as he went right past us. Please, God, I thought—let him see our camp.

Then the engine sound grew stronger, and changed its pitch as we heard the roar of a dive. The pilot had wrapped around a nearby mountain and came straight down the centre of the valley, his engine now bellowing wide open. From just over treetop altitude, he flew over the centre of the camp. We all went wild: Our prayers had been answered.

1945 American aerial photo of Ohashi prison camp

Then he climbed to about 7,000 feet while circling above us—we assumed he was radioing our location to base—before making another pass over the camp, as slowly as he dared, this time with his canopy back. He threw out a silver tin box on a long streamer that landed in the centre of the camp. Inside, we found strips of fluorescent cloth and a hand-written note: “Lieutenant Claude Newton (Junior Grade), USS Carrier John Hancock. Reported location.”

The instructions for the cloth strips were as follows: “If you want Medicine, put out M. If you want Food, put out F. If you want Support, put out S.” We put out “F” and “M.” Once more, Lieut. Newton flew over the camp, this time to read the letters we’d written on the ground. Waggling his wings, he headed straight out to sea to his floating home, the John Hancock.

Seven hours later, two dozen airplanes approached the camp from the sea. They were painted with the same US Navy colours, but these were much larger planes—Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers with a crew of two. Each made two parachute cargo drops in the center of camp, leaving us with a ton or more of food and medicine. The boxes contained everything from powdered eggs to tins of pork and beans. There was also something called “Penicillin” that, I later learned, doctors had begun prescribing to infected patients in 1942. (Our camp doctor had understandably never heard of it.) That night, we had a feast and a party. Despite the doctor’s warnings not to overdo it, we did. The sudden calorie intake nearly killed us.

August 28, 1945 photo in the collection of Peter Somerville, son of a naval aviator operating on the USS Hancock

But it was one thing for the Americans to drop supplies, and another thing to get to us. The days passed, until one sunny morning we had another aerial visitor from the east. He circled the camp and dropped a note: “Goodbye from Hancock and good luck. Big Friends Come Tomorrow.”

The “friends” arrived at about 10am the next day, and they were indeed big: four-engine B-29 Superfortresses. Like the Penicillin, this was something new: These planes hadn’t entered service till 1944, and none of us had seen one.

Their giant bomb-bay doors opened and out came wooden platforms, each loaded with parachute-equipped 60-gallon drums. These were packed with tinned rations and other supplies, including new uniforms and footwear. None of this was lost on nearby Japanese villagers, who saw us POWs going from starvation to a state of plenty. Since our newfound wealth was scattered all over hell’s half acre, we asked these locals to bring us any drums they might find, which they did, in return for the nylon chutes (which local seamstresses and homemakers would put to good use) and a share of the food. That night, we had another party, except at this one, everyone was dressed in a new American uniform of his choice: Navy, Army, or Marine.

The next day brought another three lumbering aerial giants—from the Marianas Islands, it turned out. Again, the local Japanese residents helped us, amid much bowing, collect the aerial bounty. By now, the camp was beginning to look like an oil refinery, with unopened 60-gallon oil drums stacked everywhere.

When the daily ritual was repeated the day after that, some of the parachute lines snapped in the high winds, and the oil drums fell like giant rocks. Several hit the camp, went through the roofs of huts, hit the concrete floors and exploded. One was packed with canned peaches, and I don’t have to describe what the hut looked like. There were several very near-misses on our men, Japanese personnel and houses in the nearby village. When the next drop generated a similar result, I looked up to see that I was right under a cloud of falling 60-gallon oil drums. It was a terrifying moment. And I imagined the bizarre idea of surviving the enemy, surviving imprisonment, and then dying thanks to the kindness of well-meaning American pilots.

Excerpts from a surviving biographical monograph on former camp commander Masake Naganuma

We now had tons of food and supplies—enough for months, and more was arriving. The camp had begun to look as if it had been shelled by artillery. So we painted two words on the roof: NO MORE! The next day, the big friends came from the Marianas and, as we watched from the safety of a nearby tunnel, they circled the camp and, without opening their bay doors, flew back out to sea, firing off red rockets to show they’d received the message.

It was a surreal scene. But it didn’t distract us from the fact that the generous and timely American response saved many of our lives. In the days that followed the drum showers, we settled down to caring for our sick and to some serious eating. Thanks to the US supplies, we began to gain a pound a day. The American generosity was especially notable given that few of the prisoners at Ohashi were American. Almost all were Canadian, Dutch, or British.

At about this time, I decided to go back to the nearby mine where we’d worked as prisoner labourers. I wanted to say goodbye to the foreman of the machine shop, a grandfatherly man who’d called me hanchō (squad leader), and had been as kind to me as the brutal rules of the country’s military dictatorship permitted. It was both joyous and sad. We were happy that the war was over, yet sad at the knowledge that this would be our last meeting. I promised him that I would take his earnest advice and return to school as soon as I got home. “Hanchō, you go Canada now,” he said.

Photo of mine workshop at Ohashi prison camp, where many POWs worked

I later learned that about three million Japanese soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the war. Millions more were left wounded. The country had been hit with two atomic bombs. Whole cities had been gutted by fire. At every level, the war had been an unmitigated disaster for Japan. Its people had become cannon fodder in a cruel and pointless project to conquer East Asia.

My fellow ex-POWs and I visited the camp graveyard, and said one last goodbye to our comrades who’d found their last resting place so far from home. It was an unjust reward for such brave young men. And it was then that tears I couldn’t control welled up in my eyes and streamed down my cheeks.

Interpreter Hiroe Iwashita, remembered fondly by many prisoners

On September 14th, 30 days after Emperor Hirohito had publicly announced Japan’s surrender, a naval airplane flew in from the sea and dropped a note to inform us that an American naval task force would evacuate us on the following day. Sure enough, on September 15th, landing craft beached themselves and hastily disgorged a force of Marines. Their motorized column sped inland to the Ohashi camp, led by a Marine colonel and armed to the teeth.

These were veterans of the long Pacific campaign. They’d survived many terrible encounters with the Japanese in their westward campaign across the Pacific, and they looked the part. After our captain saluted the colonel, they embraced, and the colonel told us how he planned to evacuate us, giving specific orders as to how it was all to be accomplished.

After he issued his orders, the Colonel asked, “Are there any questions?” Our captain said, “Yes, I have one. Sir. What in the hell took you so long to get here?” That at least brought a smile to those tough, weather-beaten Marine faces.

Following the Colonel’s instructions, we mounted up, said sayonara to Ohashi and, after almost four years of imprisonment, began the glorious journey home to our various loved ones. I was in the last vehicle that left the camp that day. And as we departed, I observed a compound that was now completely empty—save for one forlorn figure, who’d emerged from his office and now stood at the center of a camp that once held 400 men. It was Lieutenant Zenkichi.



George MacDonell was born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1922. He served in the Royal Rifles of Canada, which deployed to Hong Kong in 1941 as part of C-Force, shortly before Hong Kong’s capture by the Japanese army. More information about his story may be found here and here.

Featured image: Survivors from the Battle of Hong Kong who were held at Ohashi Prison Camp, photographed prior to their evacuation on September 15th, 1945. The author, then age 23, appears in the back row, fourth from the left. 

The post On This Day in 1945, Japan Released Me from a POW Camp. Then US Pilots Saved My Life appeared first on Quillette.

Read the whole story
40 days ago
Wow. This is quite a story.
Wilmington, NC, USA
Share this story

Society-Centered Design

1 Comment

A World of Individuals

Our world is on fire. For too long we have been complicit, maintaining the status quo. This must change. I’m writing this as we’re living through three pandemics. Covid-19, structurally enabled racism, and the climate crisis. Each of these pandemics make visible the ways that individuals fit into and contribute to wider communities. Or fail to fit in.

Before Covid-19, it’s likely that society made you think of liberal politics or charity or posh events that you rarely get invited to. Now, I bet you think of society as community. We’ve all become more aware of how connected we are to one another, and our responsibilities to our communities. That’s not only for us as people, but for business too.

Until now innovation frameworks like human-centered design, jobs to be done or design thinking have focused on two things. The first is serving the individual in order to make products and services that people want. This is often called “user needs.” The second is following a “growth imperative,” and a financial measure of success. We’ve asked how software and hardware could help drive profit and GDP.

The result is products and services that give us superpowers. You have a pocket supercomputer that can conveniently beckon a taxi instantly to you. You know exactly where you are. You can instantly communicate and transact from anywhere. However these superpowers come at a cost: your attention is a scarce commodity and your data is put to use in an ocean of advertising.

What strikes me the most is that these innovation frameworks only work when organizations and their teams operate from a place of privilege. It’s easier to ignore the unintended consequences (the “negative externalities” in the industry’s dry jargon) when you are personally not impacted. So it’s unsurprising that institutions like Harvard or Stanford gave birth to these methodologies, Silicon Valley companies popularized them, and consultancies packaged them into toolkits. These are organizations that are often predominantly white, male, and affluent.

Here’s an example. A new generation of electric bike and scooter rideshare startups made it possible to pick up or leave a scooter anywhere in a city. They removed the charging docks, so the user no longer had to find one that had a scooter available to be used, or had a spare slot to return the scooter to. The user would just tell the app that they’d finished with it, and the app took care of the rest, which was very convenient. But this made the experience of moving around the city harder for everyone else, and particularly affected those with limited mobility. So much focus went into serving the needs of the individual that the needs of other people went ignored.

It doesn’t stop at products and services. Individualism has shaped much of our social contract in the West. Data protection frameworks like Europe’s GDPR give us individual rights to data that represents us. Consent is asked for on an individual basis, with cookie banners being the ultimate divide-and-conquer attack on humanity. If consent was gained through hurried and weary clicks on nagging pop-up barriers on countless websites, can it be considered freely given?

A problem with design for the individual is the assumption that data necessarily represents one person. But it doesn’t. In nearly all cases, data represents many people. For example your DNA represents your parents, siblings, and children. Your location data represents where you’ve been with other people, where you see your friends or the walk to school with your kids. Data is inherently social and represents society.

Society-Centered Design

This is where Society-centered design comes in. At IF, a technology studio that I run, we believe it’s time to do better. It’s time to make better design approaches and tools, better measures of success, and better data protection standards. We need a new framework for products, services, and data that is purpose-built for the 21st century. We want to move beyond human-centered design to society-centered design. Where society, not an individual, is at the center.

Society-centered design is about changing the climate of ideas, and moving towards real-world solutions. It’s an approach to problem solving, that develops solutions by putting society in every step of the problem-solving process.

How could we make rideshare scooters work for wider society as well as the riders? This question is timely because the UK Government is accelerating a plan to allow rentable electric scooters in towns and cities to provide socially-distanced alternatives to public transport.  Perhaps the scooters could be dockable so the streets could be less cluttered: the scooter companies would work with local authorities to provide many more docks. The docks could be sufficiently standardized that any scooter or bike could use them for secure storage and charging. Working with open standards, working with the city, working with people.

A different and speculative example is how we might rethink data management. I’ve written before about how hard it is to stay on top of all the consent choices you’ve made. If your data preferences change, are you going to visit a million websites to modify the communication and cookie preferences you clicked half a decade ago? What if instead you were able to delegate decision making to an entity that represents your values? That way the consent management is dealt with by a third party. This isn’t a new idea. Tom Steinberg has written about organizations, “personal data representatives,” that could take on this role. I explored the idea of data cooperatives in 2014. Now there are a growing number of ‘data trust’ experiments from the Open Data Institute, Uber drivers, Sidewalk Labs, and others.

Designing for society means designing for the broader context of systems that we impact and shape. To do this, we must be intentional about citizen empowerment, civic commons, public health, equity, and the planet:

  • Citizen empowerment: how might we give people more rights and capabilities?
  • Civic commons: how might we create shared resources that strengthen communities?
  • Public health: how might we protect the safety and improve the physical and mental health of communities?
  • Equity: how might we design products, services, and standards that are fair to everyone, not just the most privileged?
  • The planet: how might we better care for our world?

We have a collective opportunity right now to design out the structural inequalities around us. To collectively hold each other accountable, to examine our existing products and services to make sure they are equitable. It’s not enough to play lip service about change within your business. It’s not enough to just look at recruitment practices. It’s not enough to make tweaks to the images you show. To take a society-centered approach means fundamentally looking at the underlying values of your business.

Until now, individual needs have been the foundation of a business’ growth, profit, and culture. Now it’s time to look towards society’s needs.

Read the whole story
71 days ago
Clever, including racism as a pandemic, but I feel the urge to get pedantic. *Systemic* racism is not a disease, it's more like the consequence of the disease of traditional, individual, racism.

And more importantly, there is an actual pandemic that didn't get mentioned that we are (still) currently living through: AIDS/HIV. Yes, AIDS is still a thing. Mostly black people get AIDS these days, so maybe it's some level of racism that led the author to forget about it?
Wilmington, NC, USA
Share this story

Colgate considers rebranding its ‘Black People Toothpaste’ and Chinese consumers are confused

1 Comment

For decades, consumer goods giant Colgate-Palmolive knew that Darlie, one of its major toothpaste brands, had racist elements in its branding. The company took steps to fix the problem over the years, dropping the brand’s original name, Darkie, a racial epithet, and redesigning its logo, a grinning man in blackface.

But it wasn’t until yesterday that Colgate announced a review of Darlie’s Chinese name, hēirén yágāo 黑人牙膏, which literally means “Black People Toothpaste.”

The post Colgate considers rebranding its ‘Black People Toothpaste’ and Chinese consumers are confused appeared first on SupChina.

Read the whole story
95 days ago
*facepalm* ... I mean, seriously.
Wilmington, NC, USA
Share this story

Wishing for a remote resilient server environment (now that it's too late)

1 Comment

Due to world and local events, we have all abruptly been working from home and will be for some time. The process has made me wish for a number of differences in our server environment to make it what I'll call more remote resilient, more able to cope with life when you don't have sysadmins down the hall during the hours of official support.

One big ticket thing I now wish for is some kind of virtual machine host for test machines, one that can be used remotely over some combination of SSH and a remote graphics or desktop protocol as opposed to basically being a local desktop setup. We're accustomed to installing and testing things on spare physical hardware or (for me) VMWare Workstation on my office desktop, but that's no longer an option now that we're not in the office (and we can't do it on our home desktops; our install setup and various other aspects of our environment assume we're on the local network, with high bandwidth and low latency). I'm sure we could set this up on a spare server, but of course that requires some work in the office.

(Since this is only for testing builds and software and so on, it doesn't have to be the kind of full scale VM environment that we'd need for production use.)

In great timing, we had our first ever Dell 1U server PSU failure on Monday, taking down our CUPS print server until someone could come in and swap the hardware around. These days I like redundant power supplies but we tend to only consider them for very important machines, like our ZFS fileservers. That's a sensible choice for normal times when sysadmins are in the office and we can swap hardware relatively rapidly, but these are not normal times; having dual power supplies in anything that's a singleton server would clearly create more remote resilience. I don't know if there are 1U or 2U servers with dual power supplies that are only moderately more expensive than basic 1U servers, but if there are perhaps we should consider getting some in our next round of hardware purchases.

(We probably can't afford to make almost all of our servers have dual PSUs, but it certainly would be nice if we could.)

The final thing I'm rather missing is pervasive support for remote management that goes all the way up to KVM over IP and using remote CD (or DVD) images. We have a serial console server, but that only gets some things and you can't remotely install (or reinstall) a machine through it (plus, our 'serial consoles' are not the machine's real console). Our old SunFire 1U servers had full scale KVM over IP and it was very great, but since then only higher end machines like our ZFS fileservers have it; our basic Dell 1U servers don't. KVM over IP is generally an extra cost feature in one way or another (either in the form of more expensive servers or as an explicit license) and we've traditionally not paid that cost, but it does cost us remote resilience in various ways.

Read the whole story
187 days ago
Zero Trust is in the corner, chuckling softly to itself.
Wilmington, NC, USA
Share this story

Webmail providers (and others) hiding user IPs was the right decision

1 Comment

Once upon a time when GMail was new, one of my gripes about it was that, unlike Hotmail and Yahoo and other webmail providers at the time, it didn't add a header to outgoing email that had the original IP that the user submitted the message from. My mail filter systems of the time liked to use that origin IP address information as part of filtering decisions, and GMail lacking it made it harder to selectively deal with spam from them (there has always been spam from GMail).

In the spirit of admitting past mistakes, I was wrong here. Yes, not having that information made my life harder in dealing with GMail spam issues. But the history of people mining every piece of privacy invasive information they can has made it clear that GMail made the right decision overall. Denying other people potentially sensitive information about where particular GMail users are is the right decision for the modern Internet and has been for some time. All webmail providers should be doing the same if they aren't already, and in fact really everyone should be. Where your users submit email from is no one else's business and they shouldn't be allowed to snoop into it, because it reveals potentially sensitive information.

(These days it may be a violation of various privacy regulations to pass this information over to other people by putting it in email headers.)

We used to be pretty decent about this ourselves because all of our email had to be submitted from local networks, including our VPN servers, and so the outside location of our users wasn't revealed (if they were outside and VPN'ing in). These days we have an authenticated SMTP submission server with a standard MTA configuration, which means that it leaks information in the default Received headers, and also a webmail server that adds its own synthetic Received header with IP address information. At some point we should probably deal with both of these issues.

(The authenticated SMTP submission server can drop the IP address from the Received header it generates and just put in the authenticated user and the Exim message ID (which is enough to trace it in our logs and recover that information). As for the webmail system, perhaps it can be configured to leave out that information and only put it into logs or the like.)

PS: If this feels like an obvious thing today, that shows how far things have shifted on the Internet since GMail was originally introduced, or at least how perceptions and understandings have shifted.

Read the whole story
213 days ago
Amen, brother.
Wilmington, NC, USA
Share this story

Can We Boost Empathy Through Perspective Taking?

1 Comment

Are humans hardwired for compassion? Glancing over my bookshelves, titles such as Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, and The Altruistic Brain remind me that many of my scientific colleagues answer this questions with an enthusiastic “yes.” Each of these books, in its own way, teaches that the animal designated Homo sapiens has evolved to care for strangers. It’s just part of who we are. If it doesn’t come effortlessly, all it takes is some patience and some practice. Attend a workshop. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read some fiction. Meditate. Read a book about compassion. Compassion is inside of you. You just need to nurture it.

One of the ways we have been taught to nurture empathy is by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a suffering person. “Before you judge people, walk a mile in their shoes,” we exhort our compassion-challenged friends and family. And we parents regularly encourage our kids to imagine the feelings of the people who might be hurt by their self-centered behavior, hoping that our admonitions are doing something to turn our kids into more better human beings.

But does trying to take the perspective of other people actually lead to empathy? For half a century, experimental psychologists have been working under the assumption that it does. It was back in 1969 that the social psychologist Ezra Stotland first tried to promote empathy in the lab with instructions to take the perspective of another person. And according to Stotland, it worked: “Any interpersonal process, symbolic or overt,” he wrote, “which causes an individual to imagine himself in another’s position would lead him to empathize with the other person.”

Testing under experimental conditions

Following Stotland’s lead, experimental psychologists quickly began using perspective-taking instructions in their efforts to manipulate empathy in the lab, and they’ve continued to do so for fifty years. In the typical experiment, research participants encounter a stranger in the lab who is going through something difficult in his or her personal life; then, the experimenter asks the subjects to do one of several things. To encourage perspective-taking, researchers might instruct
subjects to:

Try to imagine how the person feels about what has happened and how it was affected his or her life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how the person feels.

In a variant of these standard perspective-taking instructions, researchers might instruct a second set of subjects to imagine how they (rather than the suffering person) might feel in a similar predicament:

Try to imagine how you yourself would feel if you were experiencing what has happened to the person and how this experience would affect your life. Try not to concern yourself with attending to all of the information presented. Just concentrate on trying to imagine how the person feels.

To encourage still other subjects to remain objective (under the premise that doing so will squelch empathy), researchers instruct a third group of subjects to:

Try to be as objective as possible about what has happened to the person and how it has affected his or her life. To remain objective, do not let yourself get caught up in imagining what this person has been through and how he or she feels as a result. Just try to remain objective and detached.

In the ideal experiment, researchers also assign a fourth group subjects to an experimental condition in which they receive no instructions at all. They just learn about a person in need without any prompting to do anything in particular in response. This fourth group of subjects serve as a control group that enables experimenters to find out both (a) whether perspective-taking increases empathy, and (b) whether remaining objective reduces empathy. Without such a control group, any differences in empathy that arise between the groups cannot be attributed to either condition.

From such a comparison, we can learn whether perspective-taking and remaining objective produce different amounts of empathy, but we cannot know whether perspective-taking increased empathy, or whether remaining objective reduced empathy, or a little of both. This might seem like a subtle distinction in the sorts of conclusions we might draw from experiments on empathy, but as you’ll soon see, it’s a distinction that makes a big difference.

Reviewing the evidence

My colleagues and I, with the psychologist William McAuliffe in charge, recently published a statistical review (called a meta-analysis) of the results of every experiment we could find that compared the effects of these different instructional sets on self-reported empathic emotion toward a needy stranger. (You can read the full paper here).

In all, we found 85 research papers, authored by scores of different psychologists, that had examined these issues experimentally. From those 85 papers, we identified 177 individual tests of whether any two of the four experimental conditions (imagine-other, imagine-self, remain objective, no-instructions) produced different amounts of empathy for a suffering stranger.

In 124 of the tests it was found that empathy levels were much higher in the condition where people were told to imagine the feelings of the needy person when compared to the condition where people were told to remain objective and detached. The difference between these two conditions was large and unambiguous: remaining objective as you consider the plight of a needy person will leave you with less empathy than trying to think about the needy person’s feelings will. So far, so good.

There were surprises in store, however. We also found that subjects who were instructed to imagine how the suffering person might be feeling did not experience more empathy than subjects who received no instructions at all (the control group). Taking the perspective of other people—according to 18 different comparisons of those two conditions—doesn’t actually seem to be better at boosting empathy than doing nothing. On the other hand, actively trying to avoid thoughts about the other person’s suffering by remaining objective—according to the 13 comparisons of those two conditions—is indeed significantly worse than doing nothing. From this pattern of results, it appears that we can reduce people’s empathy by encouraging them to remain objective as they consider a person in need, but we can’t raise their empathy by encouraging them to take the needy person’s perspective.

What should we make of these results? I see a glass-half-empty interpretation and a glass-half-full interpretation. The glass-half-empty interpretation is clear enough: The experimental evidence just doesn’t support the assertion that we can boost our compassion for needy strangers just by trying to imagine how the world looks and feels from their points of view. To be clear, evidence from contrived laboratory experiments shouldn’t be the final arbiter of what is and isn’t true about humans’ behavior and mental processes, but the fact that these experiments contradict our everyday experiences (not to mention the sage advice of professional compassion-activists) should give us pause and leave us with some humility about the reliability of our intuitions.

The glass-half-full interpretation, which is equally true, might actually be more fun to contemplate: The fact that we are better at suppressing our empathy (by trying to remain objective while we consider other people’s plights) than we are at boosting our empathy (by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a needy person) could suggest that we are walking around, out in the wild, with reasonably high amounts of empathy already. Perhaps we take needy people’s perspectives so intuitively that we can’t get any additional empathy-boosting benefits from trying to do it deliberately. This is an interpretation that any compassion-optimist should be able to get behind: However hard it might be for us to become more compassionate than we already are, perhaps we already walking around with quite a lot of it.


Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology and is Director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. He is also author of the forthcoming book The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code (2020, Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @ME_McCullough

Feature image: Consolation (1894) Edvard Munch. 

The post Can We Boost Empathy Through Perspective Taking? appeared first on Quillette.

Read the whole story
246 days ago
But how do you measure "empathy"? By how bad you feel for a person? If you try to imagine how they're feeling, you're almost directly *told* to feel bad. It shouldn't be surprising that you then feel bad as a result.

Also, what about the "imagine how you'd feel" experiment? The author didn't say what he learned, if anything, about that from his statistical review.
Wilmington, NC, USA
Share this story
Next Page of Stories