Unpacking Empathy with Dan Ariely




An elderly man pushes an elderly woman across the brown and blue carpet of the pedestrian subway connecting the Mayo Clinic Campus in Rochester, Minnesota. Husband and wife, I would guess, because they don’t speak to each other as they wait for a family of five that is blocking the walkway, debating when they ate lunch, lit by the glow of a gelato display. The woman in the wheelchair wears a red felt hat that matches the flush, red skin of her neck. Her grey shawl is pinned to her lap by a large, semi-transparent Rubber Made container packed with folders and loose papers. Her arms reach across the top of the container’s lid, her fingers tuck under its lip.


Discussing a Patient Centered Care Plan project, Marnie Meylor, a designer for The Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation, noted “We are good at filling boxes, but we need to get better at unpacking them.”


She didn’t mean that health care systems needed to be more thorough, collecting and cataloguing every piece of a patient’s medical history. Or that Mayo could be more expedient with database processing, alleviating overhead and ultimately saving the patient money. She knew that a patient is not a database. They are not binaries, nor pain scales. Patients are complicated, fallible, and forgivable. It takes empathy to keep that in mind on a daily basis. On a scale of 0-10, how much empathy are you capable of today?

Dan Ariely, in his book The Upside of Irrationality, surveys various experiments in behavioral economics to account for why we have difficulty relating empathetically to those who suffer, especially to individuals we don’t feel a kinship to, like the kinship we feel toward loved ones, neighbors, even celebrities. Our empathy, sadly, becomes more tenuous when the number of sufferers increases.

Ariely’s experiments highlight three features that elicit compassion: an identifiable individual, vividness in the presentation of that individual, and a note of hope that we can make a difference in an individual’s life, avoiding what he calls the drop-in-the-bucket bias.

It is irrational to value the suffering of one life over the suffering of many, but we do. We act irrationally, against our own interests as well as the greater interests of society, in nearly every aspect of our lives. That doesn’t make us bad people, that just means we are a Predictably Irrational people, to quote from the title of Areily’s first book. Accepting and exploring what drives irrational behaviors will help us organize our lives around our cognitive biases, it will help cancer research institutes raise money for patients we will never see, and it will help care centers create more efficient preventative care programs.

As hospitals begin switching to electronic Medical records, these insights on cognitive bias may help developers create platforms that enable care teams to unpack the x-rays, prescriptions, and bills from a patient’s Rubber Made container while keeping the person’s needs at that moment in time at the forefront of the patient’s visit.

At Mayo Clinic’s Transform 2015, Dan Ariely will share his latest experiments and insights from the field of behavioral economics, offering new ways to acknowledge how our cognitive biases can lead to new approaches to health and health care design.


More information on Dan Ariely can be found at his website.



Registration is open for Transform 2015!


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