Professor offers lessons on being kind

Empathy is a powerful tool that helps people work together, cooperate, connect and ultimately thrive, said Jamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab.

“So far this is great news,” he said during the first Community Speaker Series webinar of the year Oct. 5. “If we, as the most empathic species on the planet, have taken it over, we must be living in a golden age of empathy and togetherness.

“But, of course, we’re not,” he added. “Empathy is important but it’s also difficult. I would argue that the modern world has made it harder in a bunch of different ways.”

Early humans lived in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, where people were familiar, visible and accountable to one another, said Zaki, author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” Today, people are more likely to live in cities, possibly alone, and many interactions are anonymous and transactional.

“We see more people than ever, but we know fewer of them,” he said.

Social media, which could provide the best opportunity for empathy in human history by allowing people to connect across the globe, has instead enabled people to be anonymous, isolated and tribal.

“In fact, you could argue that if you wanted to build a system to break human empathy, you could scarcely do better than we have,” he said.

But Zaki’s message is not all bad news.

“Can we push back against these trends and try to reclaim our common humanity and our empathy?” he posed.


“Our experiences change the way that we empathize in profound ways,” Zaki said. “Some experiences can zap our empathy, and cause it to weaken, but others can cause it to strengthen and grow, like a muscle.”

Empathy can be developed through the right practices. Those might include a meditation practice focused on loving-kindness, immersing oneself in others’ stories as told in novels or plays and developing close friendships with a diverse group of people.

He shared three insights from his work.

• “To cross boundaries between us and them, begin by returning to you and I.”

Research shows that people who develop interpersonal connections with individuals considered “other” are less likely to be prejudiced and more likely to have empathy for the group to which those individuals belong, Zaki said.

• “Care is contagious.”

A study with more than 850 seventh-graders illustrated that when students were made aware that others in their grade considered empathy a value, they were more likely to empathize and act kindly toward their peers, Zaki said.

The loudest voices in our culture often are not the kindest, he said, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Leaders can help make empathy louder by celebrating it and elevating it.

• “Simply understanding that we can build empathy is the first step toward doing it.”

Another study showed that people who read an article saying empathy can be developed were more likely to work harder at it than those who read an article saying it is a fixed trait.

That doesn’t mean that any of this is easy, said Zaki, who also spoke to Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills Middle School students during an afternoon Zoom. Developing empathy is hard work, but it is worth the reward.

“You know that on the other side of that work is maybe a version of yourself that you want to be, someone who is even more connected, even kinder and more compassionate,” he said. “You further know that if we can build that skill in our communities, then we can start to make real positive change, again pushing back some of the forces that have separated us and reclaiming our common humanity.”

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean