The Empathetic Fallacy
The Empathetic Fallacy
The Empathetic Fallacy
By Ralph Caplan June 30, 2009

“ My tiny baby brother / Who's never read a book / Knows one sex from the other / All he had to do was look!” —Irving Berlin 

Empathy-enducing Emperor penguins in the 2005 film March of the Penguins.

As a means of establishing gender or anything else, looking is not as simple as it once was, but it is intrinsic to the design process. Design almost always entails looking; moreover it demands that the designer actually see what he or she is looking at. In other words, looking, as a design activity, means noticing, which, among human beings, tends to imply caring. It is a risky business, possibly leading to what a politician recently identified as “a slippery slope”: empathy.

Once on a college test I was asked to define empathy. Never having seen the word before, but being in a smart-ass mood, I wrote, “Not to be confused with sympathy or apathy.” The professor didn't take off any points, but a stern marginal note recommended that I look the word up immediately. I did and thought ever since that I knew what it meant.

Until now. When the President listed empathy as one of the qualifications he looked for in a Supreme Court justice, the specification seemed unremarkable. Why wouldn't a judge need the capacity for understanding someone else's situation? (The President also said he wanted a person who respected the rule of law, another trait I assumed should be taken for granted.) But then I remembered that over time the term had taken on nuances not predicted by my collegiate dictionary. In the theater, empathy has been used to describe an actor's ability to relate to a character or even an audience. In politics, it is perceived by some as a code word for judicial activism. In design, the term has generally functioned as a “good” word, which, like “innovative,” “user-centered,” “creative” or “catalyst,” could be tacked with impunity onto a product, service, brand or company name. It is sometimes used to distinguish observational research from the kind that tries to determine consumer taste not by watching what people do but by asking them, in focus groups, what they like.

In this Sept. 9, 1939 Saturday Evening Post ad, Big Ben style 4 introduces Big Ben Electric Chime Alarm, designed by Henry Dreyfuss.

Well, one of a designer's inevitable responsibilities is to try to meet the needs of people who may be very different from herself. That this requires observation is hardly news, as the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss demonstrated in the 1930s, when he based the redesign of an alarm clock on what he learned from watching people buy alarm clocks. For the designer, as for the ethologist, observation where possible is the primary resource for studying behavior.

Empathy in design focuses on the user as a person, not just a consumer. And because it can be very difficult to imagine someone else's needs, we try getting the necessary information directly. This endeavor is supported by the wisdom of the ages, or at least by a Native American legend admonishing us not to judge anyone without first walking a mile in his moccasins. But, with moccasins as with so much else, one size doesn't fit all. Once I was researching an article about prisons in Connecticut. The state was at the time experimenting with a program that encouraged lawyers and judges to spend a voluntary weekend in the jug in order to better understand the sentences for which they were responsible. It was a well-meaning experiment, but I doubt that being locked up taught the prosecutors and judges much about incarceration that they didn't already know. Their experience would have been nothing like that of the real inmates, who did not wish to be there and did not know when they would get out. Empathy would have to supply what a weekend behind bars would not.

When we were discussing Universal Design in a class I taught last year, disability rights advocate Simi Linton, who uses a wheelchair, addressed us. As part of her presentation she took the entire class to the restroom with her so they could appreciate the design requirements of people with disabilities. Simi pointed out, however, that of course there is no way that simulating such an experience can make any of us fully intimate with the problems of people with disabilities; so she questioned the efficacy of programs that put college students into wheelchairs as sensitivity training.

Title stills from 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm (

Designers can try to experience the user's situation as directly as he or she can, while acknowledging the limitations. But direct experience of another kind is crucial to any design—namely, direct experience with the material used or the process of making something.

Although, it's not user-centered, I wonder if that's not another aspect of empathy. To quote the late Saul Bass, “Every design problem has a craft basis.” Describing his widely acclaimed graphic title sequence for the film The Man with the Golden Arm, Bass said, “If I had not myself fooled with cut paper, I would not have gotten the symbol.” When the architect Louis Kahn told his students, “The brick wants to be an arch,” I don't believe they took him literally. They knew what he meant even if the brick did not. Designers always relate personally to the stuff they make things from. The 19th-century critic John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy” to describe the predisposition of painters and poets to attribute human qualities to inanimate objects. Designers naturally do it all the time, but in their case, it is neither pathetic nor fallacious.

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