The Empathy Quiz

There was a really thought provoking article in the UK newspaper The Observer recently on the topic of Empathy. I have written before about empathy but the premise of this article was that lack of empathy has a link with evil, or perhaps could be an alternative, more accurate definition for evil.

The article was written by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is Director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge. With those credentials, as you might expect, it’s well worth a read. (There is a link to the article at the end of this post).

The article was accompanied by a quiz to check out your empathy levels, which is 40 questions long. I have picked just ten of those questions below, which if you answer “strongly agree” suggests a high level of empathy, (you can take the full quiz on The Observer site)

  • I can easily tell if someone wants to enter a conversation
  • I am quick to spot if someone in a group is feeling awkward and uncomfortable
  • I find it easy to put myself in someone else’s shoes
  • I don’t tend to find to find social situations confusing
  • I can tune into how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively
  • I can usually appreciate the other person’s viewpoint, even if I don’t agree with it
  • I can tell if someone is masking their true emotion
  • I can sense if I am intruding, even if the other person doesn’t tell me
  • I really enjoy caring for other people
  • I can pick up quickly if someone says one thing but means another

Before writing this post I had a brief email exchange with Dr Baron-Cohen re my own bias that sometimes women’s empathy does not serve them well in senior positions, and is not valued. He replied that he agreed and referred me to his book on that topic, The Essential Difference (Amazon link), published in 2004. I’m not sure how that one passed me by but I’m about to read it. Look out for a review soon!

Meanwhile, what do you think? Are high levels of empathy incompatible with very senior management posts? What about senior politicians?  Let me know your thoughts!

The Observer article is here.
Photo by Mrinkk


Posted on March 28th, 2011 by

10 Responses to “The Empathy Quiz”

  1. Ros Baynes says:

    I agree, Jane, that empathy can be an inhibiting factor if it prevents you from taking action. Too strong an awareness of others’ feelings can make it harder to make the tough decisions. But I wouldn’t recommend working with or for someone who doesn’t have it.

    • Jane says:

      Hi Ros, nice to hear from you! I hope the managment pocket book business is thriving! I love those little books.
      Generally speaking I’d say empathy is a good attribute to have but I suspect that it is not valued in the world of senior management. Is it incompatible with serious decision making? Women tend to have higher scores of empathy than men. Predictably I’d say change the system that views empathy as an undesirable attribute, not change the women!

  2. Jacqueline says:

    Hi Jane,
    You raise a very relevant point. I had a very senior role in a financial institution in the city and frequently I would be asked to make unreasonable demands on my staff in an already stressed and under-resourced department. I should also add that I benefited from this attribute as I had loyal and reliable staff.

    • Jane says:

      Hi Jaqueline, thanks for stopping by. I was talking with Dr Phil Hammond on his radio show recently and he referred to a piece of research whereby hugely successful organisations were found to have had all the attributes of a pyschopath. If you read Dr Baron-Cohen’s original article you will see that he suggests evil might well be called a total absence of empathy….?
      I have recently had discussions with two senior women, one in the private sector, one in public, faced with making people redundant. In one case their male counterpart was equally as distressed but in the other, much larger organisation the view was that focussing on individuals was counter productive and my client was described as ‘off message’ for even bringing it up as a factor to be considered.
      I do ponder that if the world of work had been designed with truly significant input from women we might have slightly different values around what is deemed a successful business?

  3. Interestingly, this is not just a problem for women, but for men with more than the average empathy. I do think that in both sexes the ability to feel and relate is not just seen as a weakness, but can actually cripple folks who want to get further, because often doing some requires a degree of ruthlessness.

    I don’t know the answer, but it strikes me that our challenge is to support empathy becoming seen as a virtue and not a weakness. I think it has so much to offer in terms of the role of people and the human heart in business that gets so overlooked.

    • Jane says:

      Absolutely Christine. Men who don’t fit the macho mould also encounter similar discrimination/dissonance. I’m looking forward to reading about the professor’s findings!

  4. Laura N. says:

    I think a certain level of empathy is important if people are being over worked, or if there is a serious decline in morale within the work place, for example. If a high end CEO does not become aware of this there could definitely be a problem.

    However, I would agree that high levels of empathy would perhaps hinder a high power position because that person is required to make decisions that aren’t always popular with others.

  5. Ros Baynes says:

    I’ve just read a relevant piece in April’s Training Journal. It reports a 4 yr research study on leadership strengths that identifies the female leaders surveyed as more lacking in empathy than the men. Does this mean that you have to be low on empathy to succeed at a senior level, or that more empathy is expected of women so they are judged more harshly? Interesting!

    • Jane says:

      That is interesting! Could it mean that the women got on because they have to be more like men than men…? And were the leadership strengths they identified gender neutral ones or ones culled from male characteristics? It’s fascinating stuff! Thanks, Ros.

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