Building Empathy in a Fractured World with Jamil Zaki

thanks everyone for being here here of course being wherever you are um during this unprecedented strange and difficult time so let me just begin by saying that wherever you are and whoever you you’re with i hope that you’re safe and healthy and well i’m thrilled to chat with you all about some of my work thinking and writing on empathy and in particular how we might build empathy i do think that these ideas are potentially even more crucial now during this difficult time that we’re all going through together than usual and i’ll talk a little bit about um the implications of covid19 for empathy um towards the end of the talk okay so i want to start by uh going all the way back to the beginning like maybe 50 or 100 000 years ago to a time when people really weren’t that impressive at that moment we were just medium-sized mammals not particularly fast or strong we couldn’t fly we weren’t even the only smart species on the planet at that time we shared the earth with at least five other large-brained human species and yet there were some things that set us apart most of all each other far more than any other animal on the planet sapiens collaborated and cared for one another and that made all the difference because even if as individuals we were unassuming as a collective we were breathtaking we could do things no other animal could ever dream of it was by working together that we took over the world but what allows us to work so well together um well there’s a few reasons for this maybe many but one that psychologists and neuroscientists have been fascinated with for the better part of a century is the weird and wonderful fact that even though people are physically separate from each other psychologically we overlap and that sense of self other overlap can be so intense that sometimes when we see something occur to somebody else it actually feels like it’s happening to us instead in case you haven’t had this experience recently and you’re not scared of heights here’s a guy walking across the grand canyon now the funny thing is that although i can’t see all of you i assume that you are sitting or standing on relatively solid ground so am i um the bay area is the relatively is operative um but but but if you’re anything like me just looking at this video you might feel your palms start to sweat you might feel a little bit nervous like it were you not him on the wire that experience is a primitive form of empathy our emotional and psychological entanglements with each other empathy is a simple word for a complex idea and in fact researchers like me think of empathy actually as an umbrella term that describes multiple ways that we connect with each other’s emotions so i’ll try to explain this using using an example let’s say that you’re having lunch with a friend and he gets a phone call you don’t know who’s on the other side of the line or what they’re saying but you can tell it’s not good because your friend begins to cry well as you see him break down a few things might happen in you first you might feel bad yourself vicariously sharing his feelings which we would call emotional empathy you might also try to understand what he’s feeling and why which we would call cognitive empathy and third at least if you’re a decent pal you probably care about your friend and wish for him to feel better and you might even try to figure out how you could help that’s what we often call empathic concern or compassion you might think that these three pieces are just different sides of the same coin but it turns out they split apart in really interesting ways so for instance they’re only moderately correlated across the population what does that mean it means that if you are for instance really tend to intensely share other people’s emotions that actually doesn’t tell me very much about whether you’ll be good at understanding their emotions as well these pieces of empathy are also affected in different conditions people with autism spectrum disorders sometimes struggle to understand what others are feeling but they’re perfectly able to share and care about other people’s emotions whereas people with psychopathy often have the opposite profile so these pieces of empathy are related but can be separated and nonetheless together they make up the full range of human empathy you can think about empathy as an individual quality how much of it you

or someone you know has we can also think about empathy like in your town or our country or the stanford diaspora as the psychological or human equivalent of a natural resource and it is a precious one decades of evidence now demonstrate countless ways that empathy benefits like everyone involved including ourselves we often think of empathy as something we do for others but when individuals feel empathy they benefit as well for instance they report being happier they report less depression and stress they have an easier time forming and keeping important relationships and they’re more likely to succeed professionally empathy’s benefits of course bubble outward patience of empathic doctors more satisfied with their care employees of empathic managers are less likely to call in sick with stress-related illnesses and maybe unsurprisingly spouses of empathic partners tend to report being happier in their marriages but maybe the most important and most crucial role of empathy is actually in helping us stitch together broader communities not just between us and the people we know and love but even towards strangers so for instance people who tend to feel lots of empathy also tend to help strangers for instance by volunteering and donating to charity and empathy also makes it less likely that we see strangers who are different from us through the lens of stereotyping prejudice and bias so this is great we’ve got on our side empathy this ancient instinctive engine for kindness and collaboration and cooperation and we the most empathic animal on the planet took the place over so we must be just living in an empathic utopia all sitting in a global circle together holding hands and sin no that’s not of course the world that we live in empathy is hard and i would argue that it’s getting harder to understand why we can revisit our paleolithic pals here and think about the social world in which empathy evolved and maybe the world that it’s built for well at that time human beings existed in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers what that means is that if you ran into somebody else probably a few things were true you were likely familiar to each other maybe even related you were visible to each other we could hear pain and pleasure in each other’s voice see it on each other’s faces and we were accountable in small communities people can tally other people’s history of kindness or indifference and karma is like real and concrete i think of these ingredients of social life familiarity visibility and accountability as empathy’s primordial soup sort of a cocktail that together make it easy and natural for us to connect with and care about one another but i would also argue that these ingredients of social life have rapidly disappeared especially in the last century or so humanity has incr with incredible speed moved into large cities and started living alone meaning that in a real way we see more people than ever but we know fewer of them rituals that used to bring us into regular contact everything from bowling leagues to churchgoing have given way to solitary pursuits often carried out online online in settings where we often are anonymous to each other we don’t have the cues that spark our empathy and we don’t have accountability towards others and online in settings where often the first thing that we learn about someone is something that we fear or despise where people become enemies before they have a chance to be people this type of environment is not necessarily great soil for social connection and along with these huge structural changes we’ve seen incredible increases in loneliness cynicism anxiety and decreases in empathy one could in fact argue if you want to build a system to break human empathy you could scarcely do better than we have and i’m gonna show you some evidence that it has broken so here’s the most common way that psychologists measure empathy it’s just a self-report scale it’s a series of statements and you’re told to say how well each statement describes you from one not at all to five extremely so i’ll give you a couple of them and you can think about them on your own so here’s one i often have tender concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me you can think about how well that describes you here’s another i try

and look at everyone’s side of a disagreement before i make a decision right again you can think about how well that describes you so your answer to those statements plus 26 others would give you an empathy index or score somewhere between one and five hopefully that makes sense this test was developed in the 1970s and since then hundreds of thousands of people have taken it and recently psychologists decided to aggregate this information and the news was not great here i’ll show you the average american score on this test in 1979 four out of five not terrible a solid b here it is again in 2009 much closer to a three out of five it’s a big drop to put it in perspective the average american in 2009 by their own self-report was less empathic than 75 percent of americans just 30 years before so maybe this study is shocking to you or maybe it’s the opposite of shocking maybe you didn’t need a study to tell you that it’s become harder for people to connect with each other i know it’s been a very interesting experience for me right my entire scientific career i’ve spent documenting in many cases the really powerful benefits that empathy gives to us and the people around us but as a person i’ve noticed all these trends from political polarization to certain aspects of life online that seem to be pulling us apart instead of bringing us together it’s almost like the culture that we’ve built is poorly calibrated with the instincts for togetherness and connection that allowed us to build it in the first place i felt sometimes like being a psychologist studying empathy these days feels like being a climate scientist studying the polar ice we document the benefits of something just as it disappears all around us which is bleak i know and we’re only 15 minutes in but that’s good actually because i’m hoping that we can use the rest of our time to think hard about this problem and what we can do about it and in particular i want to spend the rest of our time on a simple question does it have to be this way do we have to accept that as we continue to become more urban more technologically mediated which we will that we are also doomed to become more callous less connected even crueler or can we push back is there anything that we can do to try to reclaim our common humanity and rebuild our empathy i’ll be sharing some thoughts for the rest of the talk but please feel free to share your own in the chat as well if you like so i’ve so from my perspective the answer to this question can we rebuild our empathy boils down to the answer to an even simpler question is empathy something that we can control at all and i would say that standard wisdom from my own fields of psychology and neuroscience has been not really we can’t control our empathy because it’s a trait maybe this is an intuition that you’ve had in the past i don’t know try it out think about the most empathic person you’ve ever met or known and the least empathic person you’ve ever known now maybe you think that those two people were just born that way that their level of empathy or lack thereof was just kind of hardwired into their genes and coded into their brains if you believe that well then maybe you also believe that let’s say that there’s a line between the most and least empathic person that each of us might have some level of empathy and just like our adult height or the color of our eyes we’re mostly stuck there for life right we can’t change that’s just sort of where we are now if you are high in empathy this is great news for you it means you are bound to benefit from empathy’s positive qualities and the people around you are as well but if you struggle to connect with people this is terrible news because it means that no matter what you do or how hard you try you can’t get better at it it’s even worse news for us as a group because it means that if the modern world is putting barriers up that make empathy harder there’s nothing we can do to overcome those barriers either this is a fatalistic view of empathy thankfully it’s also wrong i want to spend the rest of our time together today telling you about a new view of human empathy in science that i and many other people have been working on but i want to start by telling you that for me it’s actually not that new at all in fact this is a view that defined a lot of my childhood it turns out that in the early 1970s washington state university in pullman offered graduate scholarships to students from some of the world’s poorest nations

and my mom got the scholarship from peru and my dad did not get a scholarship not as good a student as my mom but came to washington state anyways from pakistan so they traveled from these two massive cities of lima and lahore again to this tiny little town of pullman where they fell in love uh it turns out that for them it was not meant to be uh when i think about my parents even now i think that one of the big things that they had in common was their sense of foreignness in the u.s i think they were both pretty uncomfortable here when they got here and that they found comfort in each other but as they acclimated to their new country i mean now they’ve been here for 50 years almost i think they realized how little they had in common which as their only child is extremely little i think these people are just very different from each other um so i spent a lot of my childhood um sort of watching them get divorced right they started when i was eight and didn’t finish until i was 12 and it was not one of the amicable kinds um and so i spent a lot of time sort of shuttling back and forth between their houses during that process and to me it often felt like i was going between parallel universes i’m sure anyone here who’s a child of divorce maybe can sympathize with this but i felt like when i was with my mom i had to basically tune myself to her emotional frequencies figure out what mattered to her and make that matter to me as well but when i got to my dad’s house those same rules stopped applying and i had to recalibrate which is hard emotional labor for like an eight-year-old right and i think that for a while um the three of us thought that i would basically have to pick one parent and kind of give up on the other but i knew that for all of our sake i had to keep trying and so i did and eventually it got easier i learned to tune myself more easily to their different emotional frequencies and eventually manage to keep my connection to each of my parents really strong even as their connection to each other disintegrated i would say that empathy basically saved my family and my childhood but not because it came naturally i think of my parents divorce as an empathy gym that forced me to work at care and understanding really almost as a survival skill and you know i think that that experience and the benefits that it brought to me is a big reason why i study what i do in the first place in the many years since then i’ve documented lots of evidence that runs counter to standard wisdom but actually jibes with my own childhood experience it turns out that empathy is not just a trait yes our genes do matter but so do our experiences and empathy can usefully be viewed really as something like a skill because some experiences can cause it to atrophy but other experiences can cause our empathy to grow and broaden and intensify and critically that means that the choices and habits and practices that we make and cultivate can allow us to build our empathy on purpose the same way you’d work out a muscle so if my parents divorce was an empathy gym for me i now see my job as building empathy gyms for other people my colleagues and i try to set up situations where people can practice caring and understanding and get better at it if they want to i want to share with you just a few of the insights that we’ve gotten along the way the first one is that if you want to cross boundaries between us and them you can begin by returning to you and i one of the most painful and difficult things about division in our culture as i see it is that it stops us from being curious about who’s on the other side whether it’s a generational divide an ideological one a racial or ethnic one we often start to reduce people to just one part of their identity and stop wondering really who they are the good news is that that type of prejudice or dehumanization is really hard to do up close because people are complicated and no one can be reduced to just one part of their identity so it turns out that when we get to know individuals who are different from us and really think about their experiences as individual people we don’t just build empathy for them we actually build empathy for the whole group to which they belong recently my colleagues at stanford’s virtual reality lab and i tried a high-tech version of this type of empathy building we used a vr simulation to help people build empathy for uh individuals from a group that often doesn’t receive a lot of empathy homeless people in the bay area so we created a simulation uh that had a number of different scenes

in it that mimicked what it might become be like to become homeless so here in the first one someone has been evicted from their apartment and is trying to sell their furniture to make ends meet they’re then living in their car which is impounded and finally they’ve taken to a local bus line for shelter in the last scene and i should say that this was based on interviews with homeless individuals in the bay area this was a short simulation just about 15 minutes but we found that it had long lasting impact so people who went through this vr simulation as compared to folks in a control group actually reported even one month later less tendency to dehumanize homeless individuals and more support for affordable housing policies in the bay area which as many of you know is a crucial issue these days especially so again the punch line here is that when we focus on particular individuals you and i instead of reducing people to us and them mentality we can often build our empathy we did that using vr but the good news is you don’t need like an oculus rift to understand the experiences of people who are different from you it turns out that reading novels whose protagonists come from different groups builds our empathy for real people from those groups but the best way to get to know an individual who’s different from you is to get to know an individual who’s different from us i feel like you know they’re all around but sometimes it can feel challenging especially these days in this hyper-polarized age to try and really make a meaningful connection to someone we disagree with or someone we don’t don’t identify with but it turns out that when we take the effort to do that we often broaden our social antenna in ways that can be really powerful so that was principle number one the second principle that i want to share with you is that caring is contagious in a a good type of contagion for a change all sorts of behaviors are contagious because human beings are a herd species we tend to do and think and feel and say what people around us do and that can be tragic when negative behaviors spread through our social networks but it can also be positive in my own research i found that when people believe that others around them are empathic and generous they themselves are more likely to act in caring ways as well recently my colleagues and i decided to see if we could leverage the power of conformity to build kinder cultures around among the most conformist people on the planet not a knock on them but it’s true seventh graders they really are by age the most conformist group of people uh we have and so we worked in four bay area bay area middle schools with about 850 students in seventh grade and about 200 of these we put in a condition that we call an empathic norms condition which simply means that we tried to convince these students that empathy was popular among their peers i’m going to try to play you a short video a clip from a video that we showed them and hopefully you’ll be able to hear it specifically seventh graders tend to like empathy more meaning that they want to be empathic they also value empathy in others meaning that they like it when other people are empathic and want to be friends with empathic people finally they expect empathy from others meaning that in seventh grade most people are empathic and now more than ever you and your seventh grade peers are better able to share and understand each other’s emotions okay so this again was meant to convince students in that condition that empathy was popular among their peers after that we had students describe why they valued empathy and then we collated all their responses why well so that when they came back we could show them basically a brochure of all of their friends and classmates saying why they valued empathy in essence we were trying to alert students to a real social norm all around them how popular empathy was among their peers we then asked them to tell us how people in their grade felt about empathy and they took to this task really well so here’s one sample response people in my grade feel very strongly about empathy in seventh grade it’s really important to value empathy and i can see that many people in my grade value it a lot smiley face emoji which i take to be one of the most enthusiastic things a seventh grader give at least to me um so students in this condition after learning how popular empathy was at least telling us that they value it did they also act in empathic ways well to test that we return to these schools one to two months later and we asked students to nominate people in their class who were nice who did favors or helped other kids and who seemed caring and what we found is that students in our empathic norm condition compared to students in control

conditions uh told us that they were more motivated to empathize and that in turn predicted that a month later their classmates reported them as acting in kind ways mind you not that they told us that they acted kindly that other people told us that they acted kindly which we take to be even a more convincing measure so to me this is a really hopeful study i also think it’s one that has implications that go far beyond school settings i think in our culture sometimes the loudest voices are not the kindest so think about these students before our study they might have been paying attention to a schoolyard bully or you can think about extreme pundits on cable news or your favorite loud mean person on twitter these people might not represent us but it’s easy they take up so much air time that it’s easy to think that they do and to feel like if we want to fit in we have to fall in line and act the way that they do since my book published last year i’ve received hundreds of emails from people who want a kinder and more empathic culture i think of them almost as a quiet majority under the surface of often a very loud mean surface right and so i always encourage them to make their empathy loud and to make it visible i think this is especially important for leaders in really any space whether you’re the leader of a school a family a town or a company i work with lots of organizations um you know leaders in in companies and school systems hospital systems you name it who want to inject more empathy into their workplace cultures and the first thing that i tell them is that it has to come from the top right because the behaviors that people in leadership model and make visible and highlight and celebrate and elevate don’t just become visible to people on the ground they become more contagious so the fi the third and final kind of principle that i want to leave you with is that simply understanding that we can build empathy is the first step towards doing so i’m sure some of you are familiar with my uh incredible colleague carol dweck and her work on mindsets really briefly this is the idea that our beliefs about ourselves can become self-fulfilling prophecies right if you believe that something like your intelligence is a fixed trait you might not be motivated to work on it but if you believe that you can grow then you might be more motivated to put in effort well as soon as i got to stanford carol and i decided to see whether the same was true of empathy in one study or a set of studies rather we presented people with one of two essays meant to impart different beliefs about how empathy works the first empathy like plaster is pretty stable over time was meant to induce people to feel like empathy was a fixed trait that no matter what they did they couldn’t build it the second essay empathy is changeable and can be developed was meant to convince people that empathy was a skill after they read one of these two essays we put participants through an empathy obstacle course full of situations where it might not come naturally to connect with somebody else we found over and over again that people we are just convinced that empathy was a skill worked harder at it for instance they spent more time listening to this to stories told by someone of a different race and they told us they would invest more energy trying to understand the opinions of someone they disagreed with politically again to us this is an optimistic finding because it suggests that people can build their empathy i also think it’s a somewhat ironic finding as i’ve just been telling you sort of the classic wisdom from my field and beyond is that empathy is a fixed trait well it turns out that maybe that’s not just wrong but that belief could be toxic and counterproductive because if you think of empathy as a fixed trait you might be discouraged from working on it even if that work could benefit you and the people around you by contrast if you understand that empathy is a skill well then you might see that you have the opportunity and i would say maybe the responsibility to work on it in ways that adhere to your values and the person you would like to become hopefully by now you understand that empathy is a skill and can start to think about how you want to point it in your own life i would argue that maybe that’s never been more important than now or at least not in a long time as the world reels of course from this global pandemic and the long lasting unpredictable effects that it will have on all of us i want to close today by thinking a little bit about disasters and what they reveal about us

humanity it turns out that catastrophes are a collision point for two stories about human nature the two stories start in the same way they start by saying that disasters rip away our comfortable routines and take away also social norms and conventions and they reveal the true human nature underneath but the two stories then go in totally opposite directions one story you might have seen in movies about disasters where what is revealed is not very good in those movies after and during disasters people fall apart and tear each other apart they panic they act selfishly and social order collapses well a different story emerges from the historical record a book that i think is so timely these days and just wonderful in general is rebecca solnitz a paradise built in hell solnit goes through a number of different disasters the earthquakes in san francisco in 1906 and 1989 the bombing of london during world war ii uh hurricane katrina 911 and over and over again she finds that that story about human nature seems to be contradicted in fact it turns out when the lights go out and the rules go away people turn up for each other people help strangers and neighbors and they form pop-up communities of mutual aid because along with our routines what else is ripped away some of the separateness that usually governs our lives disasters often put us in the same boat in some times quite literally so a soul that for instance talks about the cajun navy a group of private boat captains some of them just having these little tiny rafts who went back through the wreckage over and over again trying to find anybody who they could save and often risking their own lives in the process of course covet 19 is one of the great disasters of our time and i think that a lot of us have been focused on the first story that it reveals the way the people have acted in selfish ways we see headlines about folks who are hoarding toilet paper or flouting social distancing measures and that is true that’s really happening and it’s really can be destructive but i think we should definitely ensure that we’re also paying attention to the widespread acts of kindness that this pandemic has brought so all around the world people have found ways to help each other just as solnit writes about a lot of this happens on google spreadsheets google spreadsheets may be the not the most inspiring genre most of the time but all around the world people have created spreadsheets to help their neighbors who might be more vulnerable to the pandemic people have turned out for each other in ways that i’ve almost never experienced in my lifetime and so yes as although this disaster has harmed us in so many ways i think it’s also revealed some of our best sides as our worst moments sometimes do now there’s of course a massive difference between covid and disasters like katrina or 911 which is that those other disasters happen quickly now they might affect us for a long time but they happen quickly kovid is a slow disaster that will continue to affect us and the people we care about and people who we don’t know for years or even decades to come and i think that a big and vital question of our age will be whether we can take the acts of kindness that we’ve seen and hopefully that we’ve taken part in during the catastrophe and turn those into habits of kindness instead so i’ll just close by by saying that if you are looking for ways to practice kindness to take some of the topics that i’ve discussed in this talk and make them practical for yourself it just so happens that this week i’m holding a sort of digital event called the global kindness challenge it’s actually based on a seminar that i teach at stanford called becoming kinder that has a series of little empathy building exercises that i assign to students well this week i feel like so you know because this is such a lonely and painful summer for so many people i want to share those same exercises with people around the world so if you’re interested in taking part or spreading the word uh please feel free to join us it’s been really inspiring seeing people’s stories thus far um great and with that i’ll just thank all of you for your time and attention and i really look forward to your thoughts and questions thank you thanks jameel how has the data on empathy changed in other countries outside of the united states and is there a comparative change

it’s a great question and one that we don’t have an answer for so there’s there’s um cross-sectional data that um uh there’s data from all around the world at this point using that same empathy scale that i described um so for instance i can tell you that as of 2017 the us ranked uh i think eighth or ninth in empathy among 63 nations that were sampled um which is not bad you know um was you know i think was impressive and we also have longitudinal data over the decades from within the u.s but unfortunately we don’t have the combination of those two things so we don’t have long-term data from around the world that we would need to answer that very good question in a satisfactory way now i think people are asking these questions a lot more and using that scale a lot more around the world so as the years go by we’ll be able to chart change around the world not just within the us and um where can people find the empathy index if they’re look if they’re looking for more information about that and do you have information about the breakdown of that index in terms of demographics or other ways to kind of cut and look at that there’s all sorts of information about this so the scale is called the interpersonal reactivity index it was developed by a psychologist named mark davis who is at eckerd college e-c-k-e-r-d i believe in florida and his site has the iri on it so you can download it and try it out anytime you want um there’s all sorts of information about demographic breakdowns on the iris so you know generational and age differences gender differences are the two that i’m most aware of but you know like i said hundreds of thousands of people have taken this test by now so there’s lots of information about it and amelia just asked have there been re-evaluations at all of the questions that are in there now that the survey is more than 40 years old yeah it’s a that’s a really great question um so when the study came out sort of pointing to this empathy decline i interviewed mark um and i kind of asked him you know do you think any of these questions are outdated and he said well take the test see what you think and you know i have to admit the questions are pretty they feel pretty universal to me um there have been some attempts to add scales to them to test the validity in new context and it’s a pr it’s a pretty robust scale so what do i mean by robust well the way that you’d want to test something like this is you want to say well wait a minute someone’s telling me they’re empathic how do i know to believe them maybe that’s just someone who’s really full of themselves right telling me that they’re maxing out on all sorts of positive qualities but it turns out that you can also measure empathy physiologically so like i could give someone electric shock and see how the person next to them whether that person’s palms start to sweat as a physiological sign of their sharing of the person’s emotions i can and in fact do scan people’s brains while they observe others experiencing emotions and i see how much their brain states match you can also look at people’s propensity to act in generous ways and people’s score on the iri actually tracks all of those other metrics right so that’s why we believe that it’s a relatively valid scale because it’s not just people telling us something it’s people telling us something that also corresponds to their behavior i’m going to connect a few questions because we’ve had over 60 that have been asked are there certain requisites for empathy and for example what extent did trust vulnerability self-awareness emotional intelligence have to be present to flourish and how would you persuade an analytical person or someone who doesn’t think empathy is a value worth growing how would you convince them that it is yeah i do this all the time i mean yeah like i said i actually work with lots and lots of organizations of all types and let me tell you that different people in different sectors have different viewpoints about empathy and its value i’ve heard people give me all sorts of stereotypes about empathy especially in workplace settings sometimes in silicon valley you know i’ve heard empathy is a feminine quality or empathy will interfere with our bottom line or my ability to give people feedback that’s honest it’s so easy to debunk those beliefs because in essence the opposite is true in every case i mean empathy turns out to be a massive competitive advantage in workplace culture um you know especially in retaining and and finding and recruiting talent um it it tracks all sorts of other positive qualities within relationships within professional and personal relationships it tracks positive health indices it’s really easy to make the case to someone that they should be empathic for themselves and that’s fine i mean i also hope that

that’s not the only convincing argument for empathy right because empathy produces not only psychological safety and sort of opens the door for vulnerability in the person who’s who’s expressing it it also obviously you know produces a more positive climate for the people around us and so you know i hope that people are motivated both to do things that are healthy for themselves and and for others and you brought up myths is there such a thing as as too much empathy can you relate and share other people’s feelings so much that it starts to negatively impact you oh yeah absolutely so when i tell people that empathy is a skill and they can build it sometimes i get a question so should i just turn my empathy up to 11 all the time like sp like and this is spinal tap right just leave it it’s like no absolutely not it’d be a disaster i mean you know i used to live in new york city and just to think about walking down one manhattan block while taking on everybody else’s pain i mean you just collapse right and that’s not always the way to help other people either right i don’t want my therapist uh sort of like crying when i’m in a session with them and saying gosh your life really is terrible like he doesn’t need to share my struggles but he does need to care about them and this is where i think some of the differential or distinctions between types of empathy matter so much i have a whole chapter in my book around medical empathy it turns out that one of my children spent a lot of time early in her life at a nicu and you know the physicians and nurses and social workers there were these empathic superheroes to us the care they gave us was astounding and so meaningful and i started to worry about them you know i was like how can they possibly keep this up and so i went and shadowed them for my book and i found really what a struggle it is to sort of be in those kind of fire hose of human suffering types of spaces and keep connected and so i researched a lot about empathy and burnout and what i found was that really so you might remember mailing that i was talking about sharing other people’s emotions like vicariously catching their feelings and then compassion or sort of caring for other people without feeling as they do it turns out that sharing other people’s emotions is a risk factor for burnout fatigue and even sort of symptoms of trauma by contrast feeling for other people empathic concern is a protective factor against burnout so it turns out that the way that one empathizes matters a lot more sometimes than how much they’re empathizing right i mean it’s not just a volume knob that we’re turning up if i can torture the metaphor even further i’m old enough to remember stereo equalizers you remember you could like turn up or down different frequency ranges i think the one of the pieces of the art of caring in a sustainable way is tuning ourselves to types of empathy that are more useful and i realize it’s a long answer the last thing i’ll say is that some of that tuning can be done through certain meditation practices and you answered another question someone had which is what is the difference between empathy and compassion can you also differentiate empathy from sympathy yeah sympathy is a tough one scientifically because its definition has really flip-flopped a lot over the years so it start it became really popular among like the scottish enlightenment philosophers like adam smith and hume and they would talk about sympathy the exact same way that people now would talk about emotional empathy as this like really visceral sharing of other people’s emotional states then the term empathy took over in like 1909 in english and people stopped using sympathy the way that they had and now they use it to mean something more distant almost like pity i just shy away from it all together because i feel like it’s it’s definitional wobble is too much for me and trust me as someone who studies empathy i deal with a lot of definitional wobble but to go you know the way i just see sympathy used in totally incompatible ways i i like to stick with empathy which is what um psychologists and researchers have really focused on much more so i’m glad that you just talked a lot about this time that we’re in and what happens in crisis and so i think this many people have voted this question as a result so is the solution to increasing empathy solely just about individual behavior or are there kind of collective actions that we could take to make society more empathic and there were a couple of other questions also around that in terms of you know if you’re the leader of an organization how can you promote it and are there grassroots examples that we’ve seen outside of corporate america oh gosh absolutely yeah i mean so one of the one of the myths that i think is we’re always worth debunking is that empathy is an individual sport right that that we’re all only responsible for the empathy um

for our own empathy right i mean in fact we we influence each other massively and constantly and especially people in power i think whether they’re in power in government or or organizations companies etc have the opportunity and i would say the responsibility to really be stewards of their culture and again you know one way to do that is to really make empathy is to reward empathy to to make it sort of to incentivize it to make it part of the of make it part of the structure of our culture right whether that’s our culture at work or at home or at school or wherever right to really value it in visible and concrete ways and that’s on leadership then what can the rest of us do in terms of collective actions well you know i i use this phrase a lot you know make empathy loud and people are like well i don’t want to i’m too embarrassed and doesn’t is it unempathic to brag about how empathic i’m being and my whole thing is you don’t have to make your own empathy loud make other people’s empathy loud right i mean i think there’s so much coverage so much attention paid to cruelty in our culture and for good reason we need to be aware of the pain that people cause each other so that we can do something about it the fight for justice in the u.s and beyond in the last months has been one powerful example of that but i also think it’s so important to elevate and show people not just what we’re fighting against but what we’re fighting for to bring to light examples that you see in your life or that you see in your culture of people acting kindly and empathically i think that those positive examples can influence people just as much as negative examples and influence them in a way that also includes some hope in terms of teaching empathy there are a few questions like how can parents and grandparents teach empathy to kids and and when can that begin is that something early or later in life yeah so there’s all sorts of programs to try to do this now the university of wisconsin has a terrific kindness curriculum that has been rolled out in hundreds of schools you know socio-emotional learning is of course an explosive field within education so there’s lots of practices that start with helping kids recognize and be precise about understanding their own emotions so you know emotional intelligence work the ruler program out of yale is one such example using contemplative techniques like meditation to be mindful and understand our own feelings i think that’s often the beginning of understanding other people’s feelings for kids um yeah i mean as the parent of a four-year-old and a three-year-old we try this all the time you know we try to create a map of emotions and ask our kids what types of emotions they felt today and ask them to identify emotions that characters and books feel characters in movies that their friends have felt i’ll try to not go on for too long here we also to the point of um making empathy visible we have a jar at our dinner table and every uh day after dinner we write about something kind that somebody did and we sort of it’s a little bit of a gratitude exercise but it’s pointed at at kindness and empathy in particular and then we um and we put it in the jar and we read it at the end of the year um so you know there’s just these little things that we can do again i think that such an important feature here not just in teaching kids but for all of us is just to think about how to go beyond isolated actions towards habits can you build time in your day or time in your week can you add something as annoying as a google calendar reminder to help you stay on track it’s it’s really easy to lose track especially in this overwhelming stressful time that we’re living in but it’s so useful and surprisingly useful to try to make kindness and empathy habits when we can going back to the the survey that we started with has any research been done on people who took the survey in the 70s and 80s and what the diversity of their communities look like um this person’s curious about whether self-reporting empathy in the survey changes when your community starts to become more diverse and then maybe you have a increased realization that you might be racist or sexist and um and honesty changes with self-reporting so what what is there a margin of error there for people that over report it’s a it’s a huge and very important question i’ll try to be brief here so being surrounded with other people who are different than than oneself used to be thought of as the magic bullet for increasing empathy this is what was known as contact theory i think it was was it mark twain who said um uh that that travel is sort of that no what is it that prejudice and

and uh prejudice can’t survive travel or something like that which is why so many people need it basically that that in essence when we experience prejudices we don’t know people well enough and if we did know people better our prejudice would melt away and our empathy would grow that’s true sometimes it’s not true all of the time in fact sometimes when people enter a more diverse setting if they feel for instance that a new group of people is encroaching on their opportunities or their neighborhoods for instance they can become more prejudiced and more exclusionary it seems as though the fulcrum on which useful or non-useful contact occurs is whether that contact is personal and meaningful so simply being surrounded by people who don’t look like you might not be a great tool for empathy but getting to know them might be a better tool for empathy and there’s evidence that in essence when people form meaningful relationships with others i don’t know whether their iri scores change because i don’t know whether their general empathy changes but certainly their empathy towards those other towards people who are unlike them along those dimensions can increase uh another person asked if you’re familiar with david brooks nation of the weavers project um i wonder if you might speak to any overlaps between your work on empathy and his work on social cohesion or relatedly if you could talk about empathy as it relates to putnam’s bowling alone yeah i’m a friend of the weavers um i think that their work is terrific um and you know in fact the kindness challenge that’s out on the internet today is called disagreeing better sort of an attempt to find someone who we disagree with and instead of sniping at each other about our opinions interviewing them about the way that they came to have those opinions the idea being that we can even if we continue to disagree we can sort of find the humanity and even some common experiences underneath our disagreements which is basically i think quite aligned with the weaver mission uh bowling alone is was a big inspiration for me um i do think that you know there’s an epidemic of loneliness um that uh all sorts of people are writing about right now including um the former surgeon general just had a book come out about the epidemic of loneliness and isolation and loneliness ironically can turn us inward they can make us feel like we only have energy for ourselves and make us lose out on opportunities to connect with other people so yeah i think that they’re sadly uh intertwined and can create a vicious cycle this might be a fast one but a few people miss the citation for your study about the drop in empathy that we’ve experienced oh sure it’s uh sarah konrath um k-o-n-r-a-t-h um and her colleagues uh it was published in 2011 i’m happy to share with with you and if if people want to want to follow up yeah where they can follow up with me and i’ll send it to them great um and then i think this will be our last question just looking at time so in the book living danishly there’s a statement that one of the elements of happiness that people in denmark has comes from the trusting government and public institutions they know when they become sick the health care system will take care of them if they lose their job the government can help with funds or skills what’s your view on that experience and culture but and how that influences how empathic we are and um how that the best examples come from our leaders yeah so i mean there aren’t great data on sort of social safety nets and their relationship to empathy and i don’t want to editorial obviously i have many opinions but i don’t think that people are here to necessarily just listen to my opinions i mean one thing that i’ll say is that stress and anxiety can decrease our empathy right they can again like loneliness turn us inward and i think that in essence when we are struggling and when we feel as though we are alone and have been abandoned by people around us that doesn’t seem to me like a good soil in which empathy can grow right if we feel so atomized that there’s no connection to a broader culture whether that’s from a social safety net or from not encountering people in meaningful ways as much um or just from you know being on internet comment sections for too long i mean i think that there are lots of experiences that can foster a sense of alienation that i think you know as part of the erosion of empathy we’ve seen in modern times and and one that i think is reversible you know i really want to hammer that point home i think that we’re we’ve been headed in a in a difficult direction when it comes to empathy for a long time um but i wouldn’t be here if i didn’t think that we could that we could push back thanks so much for sharing your expertise and for being with us here today it’s been my total pleasure thanks for

the invitation thanks everyone for being here and for your great questions i’m wishing everyone well during these difficult times