5 Mental Models That Help You Increase Your Empathy

Most of the significant problems in society involve people, so making progress on these problems requires a deep understanding of people. However, it is very easy to be wrong about other people’s motivations. Specifically, how the act and why they do so. We make assumptions based on how we see the world and so we’re often wrong.

To be less wrong when thinking about people we must find ways to increase our empathy and put ourselves in their shoes. With that said, here are 5 mental models that help you increase your empathy and therefore have a deeper understanding of what other people are really thinking:

  1. Third Story
  2. Most Respectful interpretation
  3. Hanlon’s Razor
  4. Veil of Ignorance
  5. Learned Helplessness

Let’s look at each…

Third Story

In any conflict between two people, there are two sides of the story. Then there’s a third story, the story that a third observer would recount. Forcing yourself to think as an outside observer helps you see the situation for what it really is; it can help you in any conflict situation, negotiations and disagreements.

Most Respectful interpretation

This is another effective model that can help you empathize. In any situation, you can explain a person’s behavior in many ways. MRI asks you to interpret the other person’s actions in the most respectful way possible. It’s giving people the benefit of the doubt.

For example, suppose you’ve been calling a family member or friend but they’re not responding your calls or texts. You might assume your family member or friend is being a jerk for not responding. A more respectful interpretation would be that they have other important matters to attend to and will get back to you when they’re ready. The point is you don’t know the real answer, but if you approach the situation with the most respectful interpretation then you will build trust with those involved rather than destroy it.

The next time you feel inclined to make an accusation, take a step back and think about whether that is really a fair assumption to make. MRI is about withholding judgment until necessary.

Hanlon’s Razor

Another way of giving people the benefit of the doubt for their behavior is called Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.

Like Ockham’s razor, Hanlon’s razor seeks out the simplest explanation. For example, when people do something harmful the simplest explanation is they took the path of least resistance; they carelessly created the negative outcome and didn’t create it out of malice.

Veil of Ignorance

The Veil of ignorance holds that when thinking about how society should be organized, we should do so by imagining ourselves ignorant of our particular place in the world as if there were a veil preventing us from knowing who we are.

The veil of ignorance encourages you to empathize with people across a variety of circumstances so you can make better moral judgments.

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness describes the tendency to stop trying to escape difficult situations becuse we have gotten used to difficult conditions over time. Someone learns that they are helpless to control their circumstances, so they give up trying to change them. Learned helplessness can be overcome when people see that their actions can make a difference, that they aren’t actually helpless.

Bottom line: All these mental models can help you increase your empathy. When applying them you are effectively trying to understand people’s actual circumstances and motivations better, trying as best you can to put yourself in their shoes.