Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Role play or “acting” to promote empathy?

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I think about empathy a lot, it’s one of those things that’s a “research area” for me that I have not yet conducted enough research about… as in, research about ways of teaching/encouraging/promoting it. It became an area of interest to me most prominently after I wrote my critical citizenship article* last summer (almost a whole year ago now, wow) and more so after I defended my thesis (wow, almost 9 months ago now) and I’ve still not researched it properly yet. It’s also something I observe in my personal life… that some people seem to have none of it, while others are blessed (or burdened?) by bucketloads of it.

Lots of the literature on promoting empathy in education focuses on the caring disciplines, social work, nursing, etc. But shouldn’t we all be empathetic? Isnt’ the advertiser empathetic, trying to put themselves in the shoes of the consumer in order to attract them? Isn’t the politician empathetic trying to understand the voter? Well, the advertiser and politician are different: their end goal is “cold” and often seen as calculating: understand in order to “beat” or “control”; rather than “warm” in the way a nurse or social worker or therapist want to “understand” in order to “feel with” in order to “help” or even “empower”. But wouldn’t all people (whatever their area of work) benefit from becoming more empathetic in their personal and professional lives?

I remember reading a really interesting article (reference to come later when I dig it up from my iPad, but it might be this one) about teaching empathy through writing – where someone takes on the personality of another person, and writes a letter or poem from that person’s viewpoint. That’s a kind of role play… I guess. A reflective playing of a role. (I also just found this article on empathy via role play but have not read it yet).

But what about enacting it? Do people who are professional actors have more empathy than the general population? And artists? And novelists? People who spend large chunks of their time imagining how it might feel to be someone else and then finding ways of expressing it to convince others of its authenticity?

My toddler is a heck of an actress. I did not know children that young could act so well. Of course, I can always tell when she’s acting (or at least that is what I tell myself hehe), and I’m sure most kids are like this, except that since I’m not their mom, I can’t tell they’re acting. But I’m thinking, what does it mean? If my child can act out a certain feeling, this means she knows  that someone might be feeling that way, and that this is how they would act, and so she plays the role  and convinces other people that she’s feeling something she really isn’t. It’s not empathy, exactly, but it’s a step towards it, right? She’s not truly feeling something but she’s able to imagine feeling it…

I played different versions of this Austrian role play game with my undergrad and grad students and I think it tends to promote some kind of empathy with them.

These aren’t 100% complete thoughts I’m writing here… I’m just thinking aloud and wondering what others think… about promoting (I wouldn’t necessarily say “teaching”) empathy… via some form of “play”… or otherwise…

[I guess my last post hacking the literatti game tries to infuse an element of empathy but not via enactment… via having students research underprivileged areas… in order to question their own privilege, but empathy was not my main point there, so… and researching something from afar is not the same as living with it, and living with it is not the same as actually living it as one who lives it daily]

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*Note: I have just realized that if I had to pick the piece of writing I am most proud of, it would be the critical citizenship article. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write something I’m so proud of ever again!

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the Critical Citizenship article–I loved it. Having been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60’s in the US, I know it can be hard to imagine yourself in a “moment of history” and perceive as you do the importance using that moment to change things. Will write more later on this.

    Excellent writing!

    • Hey Scott! Thanks for reading and responding 🙂 Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this 🙂
      I wish we could have something like an anti-Vietnam movement here. I take it it was a youth thing that was not v popular and labeled amti-patriotic, but later gained traction?

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