Unintended consequences of empathy: A new Golden Rule for marketers


"Research is a process where you can spend a lot of money and come up with zero. Isurus guides me quickly through the key decisions, helps me avoid the pitfalls, and makes sure I walk away with high-value implications."

-Vice President of Marketing, Enterprise Content Management System Provider

Joe Radwich

Joe Radwich
Vice President

Unintended consequences of empathy: A new Golden Rule for marketers

Making an effort to imagine yourself in your customers’ shoes may give you a false sense that you understand what your customers want. This counterintuitive statement stems from research conducted by Johannes Hattula of London’s Imperial College and his colleagues. Fortunately there are steps you can take to ensure you are not projecting your opinions onto your customers.

Dr. Hattula’s research indicates that the more empathetic you are (or try to be) the more likely you are to assume your customer preferences would be similar to your own. Put another way, when you try to put yourself in your customers’ shoes you actually think What would I do or want in this situation, rather than What might someone else want. This is engrained into our culture: The Golden Rule says Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unfortunately from a psychological standpoint the more empathetic a person is the more likely they are to use their personal feelings to predict what someone else would want. The research indicates that the effect doesn’t change with age or experience.

You can see this effect in your home life. Have you ever wanted to do something nice for someone who was having a bad day but found that the person didn’t appreciate your efforts or worse was annoyed by them? While they probably appreciate the effort, perhaps it backfired because you did what you would want in their situation, which isn’t necessarily what they would want.

These same dynamics can play out in the business world. Product managers with higher levels of empathy believe they understand the market thoroughly and are more likely to ignore research and data that conflicts with their views than less empathic managers. Sometimes they are right – but the Steve Jobs of the world only come around so often. As researchers we see this effect when conducting focus groups: Clients observing the groups fixate on an individual who most closely resembles their own views.

This tendency isn’t all bad. In fact, it is the core of many successful businesses whose customers seek out vendors that match their attitudes and philosophy: A conservative investor may seek out a conservative bank or a bleeding edge tech start-up may seek out the advertising agency that pushes the limit. This works well for existing products and relationships. However, when a vendor introduces new products or enters new markets, mistaking your perceptions for those of your customers can create problems. It can be seen in the number of product introductions that fail despite the product team honestly believing they are creating what the customer wants – their intention is good, but the execution misses the mark.

Fortunately there are easy steps you can take to ensure the level of empathy you have for your customers doesn’t backfire.

  • One of the easiest is to remind yourself of your biases. In Dr. Hattula’s research, simply reminding people that their own biases exist reduced much of the egocentric effect. It makes you step back and think rationally about what is important to you and how it may be different than what others want.
  • Group decision-making counters the effect. Since individuals have different opinions, the discussion helps people recognize their own biases and perceptions.
  • Soliciting outside opinions or using market research can provide a less biased view of the market’s wants and needs.

Regardless of what you do to counter the effect it is useful to remember that as people we have an innate tendency to assume other people want the same things we do.  Perhaps the new Golden Rule for marketers should be Do unto customers as they want to be done unto – leave your wants out of it.