Have you ever wondered about how much of empathy is innate or learned? As I was reading The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki, he discusses how empathy can be learned and developed like any other skill and that we as a society can help make the world a kinder place.
These are the main points that stood out to me from the book:
- Empathy can be learned
- Genuine connections can cause breakthroughs
- Empathy can create systemic change
Continue reading to learn more about each one.
Empathy can be learned
One of the biggest lessons in this book is that empathy can be learned and developed. It’s not an innate talent that only some people have. Everyone can learn to be more empathetic.
There are lots of ways to cultivate empathy, from the ways things are taught to how we setup social situations or decisions. Empathy can be encouraged through both nudges (short term changes) and longer term impacts.
Nudges can encourage more kindness based on the way we set up certain social situations, or by making small changes that guide the individuals to choose the kinder option. Nudges are basically small changes that make it more likely for someone to act more empathetically. They can be as simple as rephrasing a question or making it easier to choose the kinder option (such as having to opt out of a donation instead of opting in). We tend to choose the easiest option, so if we make the easiest option the kindest one, they’re more likely to pick it.
However, developing long-term impacts are more difficult. Individuals can create personal long-term impacts by actively developing or cultivating empathy as a skill through intentional decisions and action. There are also ways to teach and encourage empathy throughout society. Such as including empathy-related content in school curriculums or other public education campaigns, along with increasing diversity and encouraging diverse representatives in media, governance bodies, and other parts of society.
Generally helping others is mutually beneficial because it also helps yourself. If more people understood the potential benefits and that it can be learned, then they may be more willing to develop their empathy skills.
Exposure leading to more empathy
People have been shown to develop empathy like a skill, especially by learning and understanding how others live.
Exposure is one of the common ways people suggest increasing empathy. This generally means having people be exposed to different types of people and increasing diversity. The idea is that once people spend time with other cultures, ethnicities, and religions then they will start to see similarities and view them as individuals rather than just “the other.”
Increased exposure can be very effective, but the type of exposure is very important. If it results in negative exposure, such as people having bad experiences with new types of people, exposure can actually reduce the amount of empathy they have for that group of people.
But when being exposed to different types of people with opportunities for genuine connection and building relationships, it can be highly effective at building empathy. To increase effectiveness, it’s ideal to facilitate exposure with education on cultural and social differences. So that exposure to others is met with understanding not negativity.
Genuine connections can cause breakthroughs
This book talked a lot about people from former hate groups and how some have changed to be more empathetic. You can learn a lot from people at the extremes of society. This reminds my of my post on the book Dopamine Nation (you can read it here), which looked at dopamine effects through the lens of addiction. By looking at extremes you can apply similar lessons to your own life.
Most former hate group members that made an empathetic breakthrough (away from hate) were because of a genuine connection with someone. Usually it was when they felt truly seen and heard by the other person.
Most hate group members are ready to “reason” or argue their way through typical arguments. They are used to being questioned or attacked, and are often given speaking points from their group to justify their view. You can’t “prove them wrong” because they know how to argue back and most of the time it just puts them on the defensive, without having a real conversation.
Rather than arguing or trying to prove them wrong, the real way to connect is to treat them with empathy. Commonly, the times when they were seen as fully human and treated with kindness was when people were able to break through the hate.
Sometimes it’s even through a connection with someone they didn’t realize was part of the group they hated. For example, one former nazi/white supremacist had befriended someone without knowing they were Jewish; then when that person still treated them as human instead of just “the enemy” it changed everything. Being seen and seeing others as truly human was the best way to break through the hate and make room for empathy to grow.
A lot of people have hate for the world and when they’re met with more hatred, it just compounds. The real goal is to break the cycle of hate with empathy.
Empathy can create systemic change
Empathy can create systemic or widespread change. It can cause shifts in perspectives or provide a different focus.
Often times issues with our systems come from unconscious or cultural biases. People have either been taught to believe certain biases, like men are better leaders because the patriarchy tells us so. Or people have frequently encountered an issue so they assume there’s a biological reason for it rather than social. An example may be a correlation between Indigenous Peoples and addictions, people may blame the individuals for a tendency towards addiction without realizing the numerous social aspects that may be causing or exacerbating the problem. Our biases can be misconstrued as facts or may even be unconscious, but they affect our decisions and society.
A key part of building empathy for others is taking the time to understand why things happen the way they do, and what may be impacting the situation. Context is key, which is why it’s so important to understand history and how the past is still impacting the present.
Putting empathy into systems
Once you know more about different types of people, you’re able to provide better service or protection to others. Understanding others and clarifying the difference between biases and facts can help everyone.
Apparently even now, there are issues with medical staff thinking black skin is thicker than white skin (not true, it’s just a difference in melatonin), and that black people don’t feel as much pain as white people. These biases can have huge medical implications and greatly affect the service people receive.
Systemic biases are often perpetuated by unconscious biases or misconceptions of others, either at an individual level or through training. We can combat these biases through both increased exposure and a better understanding of others. Improving the system by reducing biases can make the world a better place for everyone.
I found this book very hopeful. Jamil shows that even though we are so divided, there are ways forward and society can become more empathetic. It is possible to improve how others are treated and that we can all become kinder, if we choose to.
With all the division we see around the world, I think a lot of people don’t believe everyone can get along, let alone that society can become kinder. Often times we feel like people just don’t care about others because there’s so much disagreement, misunderstanding, and hatred. But this book was wonderfully optimistic that it doesn’t have to stay that way.
We can all become more empathetic. The best way to build empathy is to make genuine connections, by treating others with respect and listening to them.