The War for Kindness
Building Empathy in a Fractured World
By Jamil Zaki
At the forefront of empathy research, Dr. Jamil Zaki has made an important discovery: empathy is flexible.
Empathy has been on people's mind a lot lately. Philosophers, evolutionary scientists and indeed former President Obama agree that an increase in empathy could advance us beyond the hatred, violence and polarization in which the world seems caught. Others disagree, arguing it is easiest to empathize with people who look, talk or think like us. As a result, empathy can inspire nepotism, racism and worse.
Having studied the neuroscience and psychology of empathy for over a decade, Jamil Zaki thinks both sides of this debate have a point. Empathy is sometimes an engine for moral progress, and other times for moral failure. But Zaki also thinks that both sides are wrong about how empathy works.
Both scientists and non-scientists commonly argue that empathy is something that happens to you, sort of like an emotional knee-jerk reflex. Second, they believe it happens more to some people than others. This lines people up along a spectrum, with deep empaths on one end and psychopaths on the other. What's more, wherever we are on that spectrum, we're stuck there.
In The War for Kindness, Zaki lays out a very different view of how empathy works, one that breaks these two assumptions. Empathy is not a reflex; it's a choice. We choose empathy (or apathy) constantly: when we read a tragic novel, or cross the street to avoid a homeless person, or ask a distraught friend what's the matter. This view has crucial consequences: if empathy is less a trait (like height), and more a skill (like being good at word games), then we can improve at it. By choosing it more often, we can flex our capabilities and grow more empathic over time. We can also "tune" empathy, ramping it up in situations where it will help and turning it down when it might backfire.
Zaki takes us from the world of doctors who train medical students to empathise better to social workers who help each other survive empathising too much. From police trainers who help cadets avoid becoming violent cops to political advocates who ask white Americans to literally walk a (dusty) mile in Mexican immigrants' shoes. This book will give you a deepened understanding of how empathy works, how to control it and how to become the type of empathiser you want to be.
JAMIL ZAKI received his Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University, and then conducted postdoctoral research at the Harvard University Center for Brain Sciences. He is now a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the Director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. His research focuses on the cognitive and neural bases of social behaviour, and in particular on how people understand each other's emotions (empathic accuracy), why they conform to each other (social influence), and why they choose to help each other (altruism). His work on empathy has been well received in the academic community. He has published over 50 articles, spoken at about 100 conferences around the world, and received awards from organizations including the National Science Foundation, the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for Neuroscience, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and Harvard and Stanford Universities. He is also passionate about applying this research, and has joined forces with many people outside academia to help advise and test empathy-building interventions.
Jamil is an avid science communicator for years, devoting great energy to helping the public understand their power of empathy. He has written about how a "choice view" of empathy speaks to policing (for The New Yorker), parenting (for The Atlantic Monthly), philanthropy (for The New York Times) and medicine (for Nautilus Magazine). He has also written about empathy and pro-sociality for Scientific American and WIRED. His outreach efforts have broadened even further more recently, through The Lutz Experiment (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster), a collaborative book project with the comedian and writer John Lutz (SNL, 30 Rock, The Late Show with Seth Myers).
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- Publication date:
06 Jun 2019
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