What Norway’s Taxi-Driving PM Can Teach Us About Empathy

In a world where CEOs place reports before conversation, and decisions about customer service are based on statistically-significant surveys, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg rides around Oslo pretending to be a taxi driver just so he can talk to his citizens.

There’s more to this effort than meets the eye. Even if the ultimate goal were to generate positive publicity for the next round of elections, the act of putting himself in the shoes of a taxi driver may have a bigger impact than Stolenberg realized. In addition to the benefits of a face-to-face conversation, this setting alters the usual power dynamic between the Prime Minister and his people.

This change in the power dynamic is key. By choosing a role as a service provider, Stoltenberg reduced the amount of power and authority he had in each interaction. Researchers at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario found evidence to show that when people feel less power, their capacity toward empathy increases.

One of the most powerful empathy tools our brain has at its disposal is the mirror system. It’s powerful because it allows us to feel and think like someone else based on observing them. This is because the same mirror neurons fire in the brain when we take an action and when we observe someone else take the same action. This makes face-to-face interactions far more effective for empathizing with, and understanding, others. This system is believed to be responsible for feeling similar emotions but also understanding the thoughts processes and intentions of people we come into contact with.

But feeling powerful inhibits the mirror system system. If a person feels she is in a position of power relative to others around her, she is less equipped to understanding them and feel empathy toward them. When the Wilfrid Laurier University researchers put their participants in a state of feeling powerful, the mirror system was a lot less active. The opposite was also true: participants who felt powerless exhibited a lot more empathy on a neurological level.

Therefore, the Norwegian PM was probably in a much better position to truly hear and empathize with his people’s words than he would have been had he met them at his office.

We could also think about ways this applies to user experience: how can we use this concept of power dynamics to help our clients, stakeholders, and colleagues to empathize more readily with users? At Future Workshops, we are big fans of client workshops in which we ask participants to sketch user journeys, present their ideas, and accept critique from others. Perhaps there’s a lot more science to our method than we realized.

Image credit: BBC