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  • Karen Zeigler

80% of People Aren't Empathetic. How to Be Successful Anyway

Updated: Jul 22


20% of people are predisposed to empathy.


Research shows that only 20% of people are inclined to empathy. And I must confess I am not one of them. As a design thinker, my wiring is one of ideation and problem-solving. Likewise, thoughts, not emotions consume much of my brain space. Myers Briggs would classify me as a thinker, not a feeler. Admittedly to my determent in relationships at times. Despite decades of focused devotion to personal growth, I'm still not very empathetic. With 50% of the population as thinkers, and 80% not empathetic, perhaps you can relate.


Similarly, it's likely why you were attracted to business and not drawn to fields like counseling, health care, or charity. For me, it's quite easy to understand why the statistics are what they are. One of the first facts I learned out of college in my sales training revealed the reason. If we see every person as wearing "WIIFM" written across their forehead - we would be successful. WIIFM, meaning what's in it for me. Thus, looking out for our self-interest is standard wiring for humans. In particular, most people equals around 80%. While there isn't scientific evidence to prove that we are born selfish, it's apparent it gets embedded in us pretty early through our environment.


80% of people are not empathetic.


As a result, (for 80% at least) the majority of time is consumed with our self-interests. And, considering the purpose of design thinking interviews, it is totally about a business's self-interest. Sure businesses start because we see an unmet need and want to meet the needs of the customer. But ultimately, we do it for the profit and the positive impact it makes in our lives and others. Honestly, staying in business and being successful is the goal. If it were only about meeting customer needs, then we would have started a charity and not a company. In short, company success is in finding the balance of well-being. In the long run,


A business is successful when it effectively balances the well-being of its own needs with the well-being of the clients' needs. -Karen Zeigler

How an episode of 48 Hours showed me empathy didn't matter


As an illustration, let me share a TV watching experience I had recently. Notably, if you peeked into my private life, you might be surprised to find I watch a lot of cold case, murder mystery type shows. Even in my most chilled state, watching TV in bed, my brain wants to solve problems. Probably nerdy (or just plain weird), I get excited when I've solved the case before the show has unfolded the storyline. Surprisingly, as I settled in to watch the latest 48 hours, I found it wasn't their usual murder mystery content. Instead, it was a documentary of the 2018 hostage incident in a Trader Joe's Grocery. The host interviewed three hostages. Reluctantly, I watched the show. It was viewing the interviews through the lens of design thinking that changed my mind about the priority of empathy.


Three people, three different responses


In this case, 48 hours interviewed three people. One gentleman huddled in a storage closet in the back of the store with twenty other patrons. Much of his time was spent crying and texting loved ones. Expressing empathy toward him was easy. Indeed, I could empathize with his feelings of fear. The second, a lady who was upfront with the shooter during the 3-hour ordeal walked away pissed. She shared in her interview that after the shooter surrendered, as she was exiting the building, she whispered: "f--- you." However, I found it difficult to empathize (Brene' Brown calls it sharing the feeling with someone) with her. If I had just escaped with my life, f--- you wouldn't be my first thought as I'm walking away.


The third, a lady also upfront with the shooter, didn't seem to express fear or anger but total compassion - like crazy, other-worldly, compassion. She single-handedly convinced the shooter to surrender. At one point, she even tells the shooter (who killed the manager by the way) he wasn't a bad person. She touched her hand to his heart and told him he wasn't a bad person, that he was just scared and had forgotten who he was. Honestly, in my opinion, she represents the higher self we all wish to exhibit. However, I would say my feeling in connection with her was one more of envy than empathy.


Can I empathize with everyone? Does it matter that I don't?


Consequently, I could not empathize with all three hostages. I understood the emotion they experienced, but I could not empathize (feel with them). With this in mind, I made up a pretend de