Sunday, December 20, 2020

You 2.0: Empathy Gym

The link contains the podcast and transcript of the show.



Jamil Zaki is a psychologist at Stanford University. He's the author of the book "The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World."


VEDANTAM: Talk a little bit about the benefits of empathy. There's been a lot of work that looks at what happens when people receive empathy from their partners, for example, or from their doctors.

ZAKI: Oh, yeah. I mean, in many cases, empathy benefits all parties involved. So for instance, patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care but are also more likely to follow doctors' recommendations, which is important for things like preventative care. And spouses of empathic partners are happier in their marriages.

But one thing that I think people don't realize as much is that people who experience empathy for others also benefit. It's not just receiving it, but giving it helps us, too. So people who are relatively high in empathy, for instance, are less likely to become depressed. Feeling empathy for others reduces our stress. And adolescents who are able to pick out other people's emotions accurately are better adjusted during middle school.


VEDANTAM: So at the same time that parents and books and motivational speakers and faith traditions cite the value of empathy, there is also some evidence that empathy might be changing over time, and not necessarily in a good way. You cite research that compares the average level of empathy in 2009 to the average in 1979.

ZAKI: Yeah. So this is work by Sara Konrath and her colleagues using the most sort of famous and well-known scale to measure empathy, which is just a questionnaire. In this questionnaire, people see a number of statements, and they're asked how much they agree with that statement from one, not at all, to five, extremely. So a sample statement might be, I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than myself, or, I try to look at everyone's side of a disagreement before I make a decision.

So a series of questions like that give you a sort of empathy score, again, from one to five. People have taken this questionnaire over several decades. And if you compare their scores over time, they've been dwindling or eroding. And what's more troubling is that a lot of this decline happened pretty recently, sort of since the turn of the 21st century.

VEDANTAM: Let's talk about some of the reasons this might be happening.


There's a great study by Juliana Schroeder and her colleagues where they had people describe their political opinions sort of in an audio recording. They then had a separate group of people listen to those audio recordings or read a transcript of them. And what they found was that people were more likely to dehumanize the person whose opinion they were reading about if they were only reading it, whereas if they were hearing the person's voice, they were less likely to dehumanize that individual, right? So it's almost as though we're leaving behind, when we go online, some of the cues that allow us to detect each other's real humanity.


VEDANTAM: So it's really interesting. What you're really pointing out is that empathy, in some ways, has this double-edged sword quality to it, which is, on the one hand, it's prompting us to be outward-looking, but it's also driven in some ways by factors about who's in our in-group and who's not in our in-group. The psychologist Paul Bloom, who wrote the book "Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion," he argues that empathy tends to be parochial, and it tends to be biased. And that's why when we ask people to be empathic, we're really inviting them to be prejudiced. Is that true?

ZAKI: I think that Paul is right in certain ways. Absolutely, empathy sort of begins parochially. Our instinctive empathy might be more driven towards people in our tribe than outside of it. I often think of oxytocin, you know, this chemical that sort of causes us to bond to other people, right? We often think of oxytocin as the love drug or the cuddle hormone, but it turns out that if you give people oxytocin intranasally, for instance, they become more caring about people in their group but less caring about people outside their group. In essence, sort of turning up people's empathy, in that case, means turning up their parochialism.

I think a big place where Paul and I differ is on what we do with this information. So Paul, I think, believes that, OK, empathy tends to be parochial and biased towards insiders versus outsiders, so we should give up on it altogether. I think differently. I think that that's a problem with how empathy tends to operate, but I try to focus us on the fact that we can control how we empathize and make choices about the way that we deploy our caring. And if we recognize that, hey, I'm empathizing in a parochial way, in a tribal way, we can try to make a different choice and broaden our empathy even towards people who are different from ourselves.


ZAKI: Yeah. This was a fascinating study where Pancer placed a table sort of asking for charitable donations in the middle of a busy sort of college student union. And the table had, you know, a request for donations to charity. And sometimes, it had a picture of a sort of happy child on it. And other times, it had a picture of a suffering child on it. Sometimes, the table had no one manning it, and sometimes the table had a person there who was in a wheelchair.

And so the sad child and the person in the wheelchair were what Pancer thought of as empathic triggers, things that when people saw them, they might feel sad. Maybe they'd feel obligated to donate as well. And what he found is that when he put those empathic triggers on the table, people actually walked further away. They sort of went out of their way to avoid the table more. It was almost as though they were trying to keep physical distance between them and something that would make them feel empathy, either because it would feel bad or because it would force them to do something like donate that maybe they didn't really want to do.

I think a lot of us have this experience when we see, for instance, a homeless individual on the sidewalk ahead of us. I've heard of people who cross the street to avoid that encounter maybe because they don't want to sort of see that person's suffering close up because it will make them feel sad or guilty or both.


VEDANTAM: So what happens at the level of individuals also, at some level, manifests itself at the level of groups and even the level of nations. White Americans asked to read about the suffering of Native Americans become more likely to say that Native Americans are unable to feel complex emotions such as hope and shame. So in other words, empathy not only can produce pain, pain can not only produce disengagement, but we can actually almost dehumanize other people because we're so, in some ways, reluctant to accept the pain that comes with actually empathizing with them.

ZAKI: Yeah, absolutely, especially if you or a group that you belong to is responsible for that pain because then, empathy can twist into a sense of guilt or even self-loathing. There are a lot of studies like this. In one classic set of studies from the 1950s, psychologists asked people to repeatedly shock - electrically shock - another person. And what they found was that when people had to shock someone else, they ended up saying that they liked that person less, almost as though they were defensively, again, turning down their empathy for that individual.


there's also some experimental evidence now coming out that even small doses of fiction produce small but reliable improvements in people's empathy. And I think this is especially important because fiction is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people who are different from us who maybe we might not have a chance to meet otherwise, right?


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