Behavioural Sciences

Does beauty stifle empathy?

Belinda Parmar
Chief Executive Officer, The Empathy Business
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Behavioural Sciences

As I walk through the streets of central Geneva my route takes me past the gleaming headquarters of the World Health Organization, World Trade Organization and the United Nations. My gaze settles on the serene and tranquil waters of Lake Geneva. The Alps stand tall, proudly dominating the horizon. Could there be a more idyllic location for the world’s leaders to come together in to solve the planet’s problems?

Thinking out loud as I strolled through an immaculate set of gardens, I comment to my colleague: “It’s a captivating view, isn’t it”? “Yes,” he replied, “It is. Almost too perfect. Surrounded by all this beauty, it can be hard to remember why we’re here.”

He had a point. In every direction was perfection. Gleaming, polished, unworldly perfection. But this wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed this phenomenon. I’ve seen sanitized perfection replicated in dozens of corporate, governmental and even non-governmental organizations. And why not? Why wouldn’t the brilliant people who manage these organizations make their headquarters beautiful places? After all, beauty inspires compassion.

Beauty is aloof and distant

The problem is that while beauty might inspire, it does not engage. Beauty is not good at empathy. It stands aloof, distant and remote. And if a gulf stands between the luscious surroundings of the corporate world and the real world most of us live in, if the organizations that represent us exist in pristine bubbles of perfection whose connection to social reality has been surgically severed, how can we expect them to engage with the real issues and problems facing real people in the real world? How can we expect them to be empathic?

I am standing in reception at one of London’s leading investment banks. The walls are adorned with stunning photographs and abstract art. The conversation, meanwhile, reflects the artwork, descending into the vortex of abstraction that is options pricing. As I contemplate the art and my eyes glaze over at the conversation, I realize that I feel so entirely removed from the world outside that I can hardly conceive of the decisions made here having any real-world consequences. And yet they do.

So how can organizations start to build empathic bridges to the real world? How can they reconnect with the people they are tasked to represent? One might be tempted to strip these buildings of their delightful artwork and return them to a sort of Orwellian aesthetic of austerity where looks are sacrificed at the altar of functionality. But a bare and bleak wasteland is not an environment in which empathy flourishes. Better surely than an aesthetic of nothingness would be an aesthetic of shock and awe. One in which the hallowed hallways are adorned with raw reminders of the world outside, one in which organizations are forced to engage with the real world through a series of what we call “empathic nudges”.

Reality checks

What if the Westminster corridors of power were decorated with images depicting the lives of refugees, or if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to walk past infographics showing how the poorest 10% of British society is forced to spend its money? Or rather than change a building’s aesthetic you could change its context, relocating remote ivory towers to inner-city realities. The Houses of Parliament taking a reality check and setting up shop in East Ham? It is not as absurd as it sounds, with Hillary Clinton recently choosing to set up her campaign headquarters in the gritty heart of Brooklyn.

Because while beauty may inspire compassion, it is confrontation that inspires action. And confrontation might not be pretty, but it’s the perfect way of driving change in an imperfect world.

Author: Belinda Parmar OBE is the CEO of Lady Geek, a company committed to embedding empathy in business, and a Young Global Leader. She can be found tweeting @belindaparmar

Image: A gallery employee looks at “Fraunhofer Lines 001 (Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detection and Interrogation Program)” from 2015 of the “Fraunhofer Lines” series by UK artist James Bridle at the exhibition “The Glomar Response” at the Nome Gallery in Berlin, Germany August 11, 2015. REUTERS/Stefanie Loos.

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