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Compassion can be cultivated, argues a psychologist

The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World

Jamil Zaki
Crown
2019
268 pp.
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Google searches for “empathy” have been increasing over the past 15 years, and it’s the latest buzzword at companies as diverse as Facebook and Ford. Joining several recent books on the topic [such as (1-3)] is The War for Kindness by Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, which sets out to help people increase their empathy in sustainable ways.

Zaki opens the book by revealing that many people believe that empathy is a fixed trait with genetic underpinnings. He calls this the “Roddenberry hypothesis,” named after Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, a show that featured characters at the extremes of the empathy scale.

Zaki is deeply opposed to this idea. His research finds that people can become more empathic with practice, and when people believe empathy is changeable, they spend more time and effort helping others (4). This is important in a time of both declining empathy (5) and rising political polarization.

Zaki is a compelling writer, and even an android could not help but respond to his prose. His chapters, which treat readers to a broad tour of the most interesting recent empathy research, read like a series of long essays. This is a clever approach because, as he notes, one effective empathy-building technique is storytelling. Zaki opens the book with the story of his parents’ acrimonious divorce to show how powerful empathy can be when used as a tool to maintain relationships. By embracing each of their perspectives, he writes, he was able to remain connected to both parents even as they were increasingly disconnected from each other.

The chapter “Caring too much” starts with another personal example: the story of the birth of Zaki’s daughter Alma, who suffered a stroke during a difficult birth, and the compassionate staff who cared for her during the early days of her life. He then artfully transitions into how neonatal nurses and others in similar professions can sometimes be negatively affected by others’ suffering. This is a very important discussion, especially in light of recent debates on the potential negative implications of empathy (2, 3).

Yet after sharing the potential harms associated with too much empathy, Zaki confusingly shifts to the opposite conclusion at the end of the same chapter, arguing that empathy helps to protect people from negative effects of stress. This betrays a common problem with the term “empathy,” which is its many definitions (6). If empathy is defined as personal distress or emotion sharing, there is indeed research that shows negative implications (7). Yet most empathy scholars would define it as more akin to compassion. Using this definition, several studies find that empathy actually serves as a buffer for burnout (8,9).

The book includes extensive footnotes, a detailed appendix on the definitions of empathy, and a second appendix that attempts to evaluate the evidence discussed in the book in an accessible way. Scientists will likely appreciate these sections, but they may not be satisfied by them, and lay readers will probably ignore them. Still, I understand why Zaki included them: to appease persnickety academics such as me. Academic audiences, however, would ultimately be better served by more scholarly tomes [such as (10,11)].

The War for Kindness may inspire readers to learn more, but Zaki’s goals go beyond sharing the science of empathy with the masses. He hopes to inspire people to actually practice more kindness in their lives, writing in the book’s closing lines, “Building a new sort of empathy takes effort and sacrifice, for people who might not repay it… We each have a choice, and the sum of our choices will create the future. What are you going to do?”

Although he does not offer clear action points, the stories told throughout the book reveal many ways to increase empathy. Ultimately, however, there is no quick fix. Building empathy takes time and effort (12). Take heart, though; it gets easier with practice.

References

  1. 1. H. Riess, L. Neporent, The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences (Sounds True, 2018).

  2. 2. P. Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (Ecco, 2016).

  3. 3. F. Breithaupt, The Dark Sides of Empathy (Cornell Univ. Press, 2017).

  4. 4. K. Schmann et al., J. Person. Soc. Psych. 107, 3 (2014).

  5. 5. S. H. Konrath et al., Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 15, 2 (2011).

  6. 6. S. Konrath, Greater Good Magazine, 24 January (2017).

  7. 7. O. Klimecki, T. Singer, in Pathological Altruism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 368–383.

  8. 8. E. Gleichgerrcht, J. Decety, PLOS ONE 8, 4 (2013).

  9. 9. T. D. Shanafelt et al., J. Gen. Intern. Med. 20, 7 (2005).

  10. 10. M. H. Davis, Empathy: A Social Psychological Approach (Westview Press, 1995).

  11. 11. C. D. Batson, Altruism in Humans (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

  12. 12. C. D. Cameron et al., J. Exp. Psych. 148, 962 (2019).

About the author

The reviewer is director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indianapolis, IN 46202, USA.