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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

The Power of Empathy in a Selfie World

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Woman takes selfie on the beach

The “selfie,” a self-portrait photo, was the 2013 word-of-the-year, proof of the pervasiveness of this phenomenon. Is their popularity an indication of a growing sense of self-absorption and entitlement, or a harmless way to capture a moment? Probably both.

A 2017 study (1) found that people in selfies are more negatively perceived than in pictures taken by others. The selfie-taker is viewed as less trustworthy, less open, and more self-centered. Those attributes leave a negative impression, likely the opposite of what the selfie-taker intended. What has the opposite effect of a negative selfie-impression? Empathy.

Empathy is critical to effective communication. Empathy allows you to “tune in” and connect with others with greater awareness and responsiveness. As described in Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide, “empathy refers to the ability to understand the feelings of others and to share their emotions and sensations (such as pain, fear, embarrassment, and reward). Empathic responses activate the same regions of the brain that are activated during first-person experiences of the same emotion or physical sensation.”

Thankfully, empathy can be learned and enhanced. It is not a personality trait. In fact, a relatively new area of emphasis in schools of business and medicine is empathy training. Employees and bosses demonstrating empathy are perceived as better performers. Doctors with empathy are perceived as more effective and providing better patient care. (2) Anyone who communicates, which is all of us, can benefit from building our skills in empathy.

A foundational skill to building empathy is what is known in the improv world as “listening and awareness.”(3) Empathy requires us to fully attend to others and “listen” with our eyes as well as our ears, taking in both verbal and non-verbal cues. Look for facts, feelings, and intentions. We need to suspend our response until we fully understand what others are saying and reflect this back, checking for understanding. The selfie-world tells us to be thinking about how to appear clever and be “right,” whereas the empathic response is to build connections, to understand, and to be understood.

How can we become better listeners? Practice. Intentionally practice. It takes effort to listen well considering that research indicates we are able to pay concentrated attention for only about 90 seconds. Recent advertising research puts the duration at less than 8 seconds! (3) What does that tell us? If we are the communicator sharing information we must be clear and concise. If we are the audience, it emphasizes the necessity of learning how to pay attention more effectively.

Let’s get practical. What is a training strategy to improve our skills in listening and awareness, and therefore, empathy? An improv game called “Group Counting” is one of many exercises.(3) In this game, participants stand in a circle facing one another but rather than look at one another they close their eyes or focus on the center of the circle. The object of the game is to count from 1 to 20, no skipping numbers, with one person at a time in no particular order saying one number and only one number before another person says the next number. If two people speak at the same time, the group begins again at 1. For more ideas, see the books referenced below. The familiar song lyrics, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love” could be re-phrased: “What the selfie-world needs now is empathy, sweet empathy.” Let’s all do our part.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~ attributed to George Bernard Shaw

1) Kramer, NC, et al. Beware of Selfies: The Impact of Photo Type on Impression Formation Based on Social Networking Profiles. Frontiers in Psychology. 2017;8:188.

2) Alda, A. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? New York: Random House: 2017.

3) Koppet, K. Training to Image: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques for Trainers and Managers to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC; 2013.

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