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Design Thinking: Empathy in a World of Sympathy

There is nothing quite as disingenuous as hearing “oh, poor you” from a friend, colleague or family member. In trying moments the last thing we want is a hollow gesture of pity. While it’s generally acknowledged that an expression of sympathy is sincere, it can provide distance as a cover for authentic compassion. You don’t need to have any skin in the game to express it. Sympathy is a two-for-one condolences card. Empathy is an essay, spelling and grammar-checked and written in gold leaf with a quill pen. It requires a willingness to turn your own sensitivity up to eleven, to stop talking, and listen for something that might not even be said.

The Role of Empathy in ID

As instructional designers we have a cornucopia of models from which to approach an engagement, the grandaddy being ADDIE or some variation of it. As a BSU OPWL student, the model I’m using is called LeaPS, the Learning and Performance Support ID model. The model itself is not the focus of this post, but a chunk of it is: the Empathize and Analyze phase. For a more in-depth view of LeaPS, check out this video by two of the BSU OPWL professors who helped craft it.


Sympathy is a two-for-one condolences card. Empathy is an essay, spelling and grammar-checked and written in gold leaf with a quill pen.

The use of empathy as a design principle was developed at the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford ( It makes sense. When you are able to see through the learner or SME’s eyes you begin to appreciate what’s important to them and that in turn impacts the instructional design and learner performance. Coming from an empathetic perspective an ID can:

  • Appreciate and grant learners their points-of-view
  • Comprehend and value their feelings
  • Effectively articulate their views back to them

If you’ve ever, even casually, tried the theatre training exercise called mirroring you have some sense of what it’s like to use your body to look from another’s point-of-view. In brief, the exercise is between two people – one leads, the other follows. Facing one another and moving slowly, the leader moves their hands and arms while the follower mirrors. Then they switch roles back and forth. After a few moments, the follower is indistinguishable from the leader. This exercise, sometimes referred to as an example of theatrical therapy, demonstrates a physical manifestation of empathy.

A skillful, empathetic ID comes from a place of wonder and possesses an almost childlike obsession with exploring the SME’s world because, well… they really just have to know. And, while a well-meaning, yet clumsy version of this might occur to the SME as irritating (there’s no empathy in annoying your SME), thoughtful questions may be viewed as refreshing as in, “No one has ever expressed this much interest in how I do my job!”

Cognitive Bias

If you can sublimate your own judgement and biases, effective empathy is in your grasp. But how easy is that? You and I are blind to various hidden biases, but knowing that you have them is the first step towards identifying them. The next step is discovering your own.

Basically, there are two categories of biases: conscious or explicit and unconscious or cognitive (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). It’s pretty easy to distinguish your own explicit biases, just look. I like to ride bicycles, I don’t like to run. There’s nothing quite as good as watching baseball at a ballpark with a hot dog and a beer. Pineapple has no business being on pizza. None. Nada. Zip.

Cognitive biases are a different story. You have to work to discover yours (hm… sounds like a future post). There are many documented, cognitive biases. A cursory Google search revealed at least one hundred distinct ones. Let’s examine a few common ones that may impact the work of an ID.

TypeMay IncludeExample
Availability Heuristics – the tendency to consider the things that readily come to mind (or are “available” in working memory) are more common than what is actually the case.Salience bias, the tendency to focus on items that are more prominent or emotionally striking and ignore those that are unremarkable, even though this difference is often irrelevant by objective standards.Shark attacks are believed to be on the rise, so it’s best to simply not go in the water even though the odds of getting bit by a shark are very small (1 in 3,748,067) and the chance of getting struck by lightening is greater (1 in 500.000).
Confirmation Bias – the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of your preexisting beliefs and opinions.Selective Perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.A Facebook post I saw says that pineapple is rarely a pizza topping of choice for most pizza eaters. See… told you so.
Logical Fallacy or simply Fallacy – the tendency to construct an argument that appears sound, but is actually flawed or dishonest.There are many documented fallacies, including:
Sunk Cost Fallacy – where an attempt to justify additional expenditures are unwise based on newly revealed evidence
Hasty Generalization – Making assumptions based on small samples or stereotyping.
I know marketing’s assessment validated the concern that our existing content isn’t producing effective social media engagement, but I think we just need to create more of it.

There is no way that the grid can handle more than two or three EVs per block. It’s just too old.
Anchoring Bias – the tendency to rely too heavily—to “anchor”—on one trait or piece of information when making decisionsConservatism bias, the tendency to insufficiently revise one’s belief when presented with new evidence.
Functional fixedness, a tendency limiting a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.
Law of the instrument, an over-reliance on a familiar tool or methods, ignoring or under-valuing alternative approaches. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Sweden’s initial response to the COIVD-19 Pandemic was to ignore neighboring country approaches and pursue a path of herd immunity. Anders Tegnell, the Swedish State Epidemiologist, ignored the advice of the State Public Health Agency to impose lockdowns. Instead, Sweden followed a tried and true practice of trusting citizens to manage their individual health in the face of ever-widening evidence of the rapidly spreading virus.

In response to questions about the government’s faith in voluntary adherence to risk-mitigation recommendations, Anders Tegnell responded: “No, we will keep on this path … This is how we work in Sweden. We have a big understanding of this and a huge adherence to the rules.” (Johnsdottir, 2021)

It’s Personal

Perhaps the mantra of an ID could be: “assume nothing, proceed with wonder, humility, and respect.” Consider that many exemplary performers (SMEs) take pride in their work and regardless of temperament or behavior, they want others to perform effectively, too. To a skillful ID, each interaction is personal. SMEs and learners have graciously granted you entrée into their world. So, before you walk into their house, please remove your shoes.


Bispuri, V. (2015). ENCERRADOS: 10 years, 74 prisons [Photograph].

Fallacies. (2022). Writing Center – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

List of Cognitive Biases. (2022). Wikipedia.

What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular. (2020). Interaction Design Foundation.

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