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Why Intentionally Building Empathy Is More Important Now Than Ever

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Many people believe that life is a zero-sum game and that the most ruthless people get the furthest. But Jamil Zaki, a Stanford psychologist and author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, says there's a lot of evidence to the contrary.

“It turns out that nice guys finish first in lots of different ways,” Zaki said on KQED’s Forum program. And, when people are nice, they not only help others, but they help themselves as well. Empathetic people are generally happier, healthier and more effective at work. And, acting from a place of empathy, he argues, could be just what the world needs at this moment, when division has become the norm.

He points to the case of a former Canadian white supremacist, Tony McAleer, who turned to a mentor when he was trying to leave that lifestyle. He confessed his participation in groups like White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and his role as a recruiter for them. He didn’t realize that his mentor, Dov Baron, was Jewish. When McAleer learned this fact, he immediately felt shame and disconnection, but rather than judging him, Baron had compassion for his struggle. Zaki writes about this act of empathy in his book:

"‘Here was this man who loved me and wanted to heal me, and here was I, a person who had once advocated for the annihilation of his people.’ Tony felt he didn’t deserve a shred of compassion from Dov, but Dov extended it nonetheless. This cracked Tony open. He’d created a surface of hatred to cover his shame and loneliness. Once someone accepted him warts and all, he no longer needed it.”

Dov Baron's empathetic response to McAleer’s hate helped set him on a different path. When Baron showed compassion, it made a bigger impact than shunning McAleer. It opened up an opportunity for dialogue and growth. McAleer now runs an organization called Life After Hate to help other people leave hate groups.

"I truly feel that the cultural forces that are pushing us apart are so vast and so prevalent that acting with empathy, and trying to connect despite them, is a radical act," Zaki said. “It takes pushing back against something in order to reclaim that common humanity.”


He points to evidence that empathy has been declining over the past 30 years. Psychologists measure empathy through self-reported surveys. Participants rate themselves on a scale of one to five on various questions like: “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” or “I try to think about everyone’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.” The scores are averaged to get a total empathy score.

In 1979, the average American’s total empathy score was a four out of five, a “solid B.” In 2009, thirty years later, the average American scored a three out of five. In practical terms, Zaki says Americans in 2009 are 75-percent less empathetic than their counterparts thirty years ago. Studies like these stoke his concern about empathy erosion.

“I don’t argue that what we want is maximal empathy at all times,” Zaki said. “If you felt everyone’s pain at all times, you wouldn’t make it down one block in San Francisco without falling down in a heap.”

And, he recognizes that there are many professions that experience empathy fatigue, which is why he thinks empathy is a skill and a tool that needs to be cultivated and used at the right times. Part of functioning in this world is to know when to fall back and when to employ empathy.

Those in helping professions like teaching, social work, or medicine can buffer themselves from burnout and “compassion fatigue” with self-care strategies, including meditation and social support. A study of nurses in acute mental health settings found staff support groups helped buffer the nurses, but only if they were structured to minimize negative communication and focused on talking about challenges in constructive ways.

Concerns About Simplistic Definitions of Empathy

English Professor Cris Beam also studies empathy and wrote a book called, I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy. She notes that there are many definitions of empathy. Some of the earliest, and simplest ones, characterize empathy as the ability to “stand in another’s shoes.” Brené Brown, who has recently popularized empathy, defines it as "feeling with people," and notes that it's a "vulnerable choice" because it requires a person to tap into something personal that identifies with the struggle of another.

While researching South Africa, Beam came across another definition of empathy she finds powerful: Empathy is a disruption of power. She described the case of Eugene de Kock, an apartheid-era assassin responsible for the deaths of dozens of black activists. South African authorities released de Kock from prison after he had served 20 years, in part because some families of his victims supported the move. They felt de Kock held too much power as the embodiment of evil, and that it kept other South Africans from reflecting on their own role in apartheid.

“We can think about empathy as a way to not only look at the other, but to look at ourselves,” Beam said.

Beam contends that empathy is a moral position, not a discrete set of skills, as it is sometimes taught. She says empathy can be strengthened, but before that a person must be grounded in an empathetic understanding that often comes from literature, art and theater. Yale professor Paul Bloom is also critical of the emphasis on empathy, arguing that it's easier to empathetic towards individuals, leading society to make important policy decisions based on emotion instead of facts.

“I worry about [empathy] being taught as a skill because it should be something of a core identity and a way of moving through the world,” said Beam.

Some of her concern comes from the way that empathy has been co-opted by the business world. Terms like “empathetic design” and “empathetic marketing” repel her. She sees these as attempts to isolate the consumer, and provide them with exactly what they want, when they want it, as antithetical to a core part of deeper empathy – connection.

Could Empathy Change Systems?

Jamil Zaki agrees with Beam that deep empathy is about connection. But his research shows that empathy can be developed, like a muscle. And, he thinks that could affect the world positively not only at the individual level, but in things like police training.

In his book, Zaki describes how Washington State’s police trainer, Sue Rahr, used the power of social norms to reduce use-of-force among police there. She recognized that many police saw themselves as “warriors,” a social norm that could push new recruits who signed up to police with altruistic motives into believing they need to show dominance at all times. Rahr pushed back against that norm, training police to work with the community instead of against them. Psychologists recently chose 300 police officers working in high-need areas of Seattle and ran them through Rahr’s program. They found those officers used force 30 percent less often than their peers. And, other studies have shown police who went through the training have more knowledge about how to deal with someone in a behavioral crisis and more emotional intelligence.

Still, Zaki is quick to point out the empathy can’t solve everything. Many of the most pernicious problems are structural, not individual, and no amount of individual empathy can solve them. The policing story is a good example of that – while Rahr’s training takes steps in the right direction it doesn’t solve all the problems with policing, including racial bias. Citizens appreciated attempts to change policing, but were still upset that police officers who did use force were rarely prosecuted.

Stress Makes It Hard To Be Empathetic

Stress inhibits people’s ability to be empathetic. Zaki points out irony here. Many psychologists say human connection is one of the best ways to move past pain or trauma, the very things that keep people from opening up to empathy.

“Often times when we experience stress, we feel that we’re in a rush in order to survive for ourselves, we become untuned to the needs of others,” Zaki said.

A famous study conducted in the ‘70s by Princeton researchers John Darley and Daniel Batson asked seminary students to write a sermon about the parable of the good Samaritan. They were then told to go across campus to deliver the sermon. Unbeknownst to the study participants, an actor lurked along the route they would take, and acted as though he required help. Half the participants had been told to take their time getting to the location for the sermon and the other half had been told they were in a rush.

Sixty to 70-percent of the seminary students in the “non-rush” condition stopped to help. Only 10-percent of those in the “rush” condition did so.

“Sometimes one of the most important things is to cue ourselves in for one moment and recognize that there’s a full person on the other side of this interaction,” Zaki said.

He sees enormous potential in the internet to connect people, but is also aware that often communication through the internet has the effect of dehumanizing the person on the other side of the exchange. When we interact online, we can’t see the usual cues that indicate to us how the other person is reacting to what we’re saying. That makes it easier to be cruel and to not listen.

But it’s not all bad news. Empathy is contagious and establishing compassion and kindness as social norms can help spread it. Zaki and his graduate student, Erika Weisz, conducted a study with close to 1,000 seventh graders in the San Francisco Bay Area in which students wrote about why they think empathy is important and useful. Then students read one another’s responses, learning that their peers valued caring as much as they did. The data from this study is preliminary, but students told Weisz and her team that after learning about their peers’ empathy they were also more motivated to be empathetic.

Jason Okonofua has been experimenting with similar prosocial interventions with teachers. In a small study at five middle schools, he taught teachers about “empathetic discipline.” They reflected on discipline strategies that would not only punish students, but help them grow. They heard stories of students who’d experienced empathetic discipline and how it helped them. And teachers wrote about strategies they could use in their classrooms. After the training, the empathetic attitudes teachers expressed in their writing seemed to show up in the classroom. Students reported feeling more respected, especially if they had previously been suspended.

While none of these examples are definitive, they hint at the possibility that systems can change as the people within them change their attitudes. Humans conform to social norms – the good ones and the bad ones – and shaping those norms can be a powerful force for promoting empathy.


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