Empathy: The Preeminent Value
Minessence eZine #42 09 Sep, 2010

Keeping you Up-to-Date with Values R&D and Events—Paul Chippendale, Editor.


For years I've been arguing, "It doesn't matter what values we have, what matters is how we live them." So what's this about a pre-eminent value?

All statements make sense in the context in which they are made. So, when talking about the worth of people, the statement, "It doesn't matter what values we have, what matters is how we live them," makes sense because how we live our values has more to do with morals, ethics, and the like--i.e. beliefs about how people should behave.

In the context of building a better society, empathy matters.

The following RSA Animate from TED explains:

Just what is empathy? This 'short' from the RSA clarifies:

How then is empathy unfolding in society? We've been tracking the value priorities of people since 1988. The chart below plots the priority placed on empathy and rights/respect, relative to the other 126 values, over this time interval.

Values Shifts

From 1988 until 2000 the priority people were placing on empathy relative to other values was increasing. The global world-view shift which occurred after September 11 seems to have resulted in a decrease in the importance of this value. This is possibly due to people choosing to associate more with people similar to themselves and to have less interest in building bridges with people different from themselves.

The reason I've plotted rights/respect on the same chart is because when this value is given a high priority by people it is indicative that people feel they are not been treated very well by others. As you would expect then, when empathy is higher rights/respect is lower—i.e. when people place a priority on empathy people around them are happier with how they are treated.

How Empathetic are you? Take the Empathy Quiz.

Addendum27 March 2013

Since writing this eZine I've come across more evidence that empathy is decreasing in our society. Click here to view research from New Scientist and click here to view Susan Greenfield's uncanny predictions from 2010.

Addendum—12 August 2014

The RSA  'short' explaining the concept of empathy was added.

Addendum—17 August 2016

The Relative Value Priorities Chart has been updated with 2016 data.

What do you think?

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