The War for Kindness

The War for Kindness is the title of a new book by Jamil Zaki. The subtitle is Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Saki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neurosciences Lab. Using tools from psychology and neuroscience, he and his colleagues examine how empathy works and how people can learn to empathize more effectively.

Zaki writes, “Most people understand empathy as more or less a feeling in itself—I feel your pain—but it’s more complicated than that. “Empathy” actually refers to several different ways we respond to each other. These include identifying what others feel (cognitive empathy), sharing their experiences (emotionally empathy), and wishing to improve their experiences (empathic concern).

Empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness, which is our tendency to help each other, even at a cost to ourselves. Actually, kindness is one of the animal kingdom’s most vital survival skills. Newborns are little bundles of need, and remain mostly helpless for days (geese), months (kangaroos), or decades (us). If parents do not sacrifice to help them survive, they risk leaving no offspring to inherit their selfish nature.
When one creature shares another’s emotions, seeing pain feels like being in pain, and helping feels like being helped.

Zaki writes, “Empathic experience undergirds kind action; it’s a relationship far older than our species. A rat will freeze—a sign of anxiety—when its cage-mate is zapped with electric shocks. Thanks to that response, they also help each other, even giving up bits of chocolate to relieve the casemate’s distress. Mice, elephants, monkeys, and ravens all exhibit both empathy and kind behavior.”

Empathy took an evolutionary quantum leap in humans. Saki notes, “That’s a good thing for us, because physically we’re unremarkable. At the dawn of our species, we huddled together in groups of a few families. We had neither sharp teeth, nor wings, nor the strength of our ape cousins. Moreover, thirty thousand years ago, at least five other large-brained species shared the planet with us. But over millennia, we sapiens changed to make connecting easier. Our testerone levels dropped, our faces softened, and we became less aggressive. We developed larger eye whites than other primates, so we could easily better express emotion. Our brains developed to give us a more precise understanding of each other’s thoughts and feelings.”

We developed vast empathetic abilities as a result of this. We travel into the minds of not just friends and neighbors, but also enemies, strangers, and even imaginary people in films or novels. This helped us become the kindest species on Earth. Humans are world class collaborators helping each other far more than any other species. This has been, and still is, our secret weapon. We are not much to behold as individuals, but together we’re magnificent—the unbeatable super organisms who hunted wooly mammoths, built suspension bridges and took over the planet.

Peter Singer writes in his book The Expanding Circle that though we once cared for a narrow group of people—our kin, perhaps a few friends—over time, the diameter of our concern has expanded beyond tribe, town, and even nation. Singer continues, “The food we eat, the medicine we take, and the technology we use are sourced globally; our survival depends on countless people we will never meet. And we help people we will never know—through donations, votes, and the culture we create. We can learn intimate details about the lives of people half a world away and respond with compassion.”

Singer writes, “WE CAN, but we often don’t, and this raises an important truth about empathy. Our instincts evolved in a world where most of out encounters were, in every sense familiar. Small, tightly knit communities were empathy’s primordial soup, packed with ingredients that made caring easy.”

The modern world has made kindness harder. For the first time in 2007 more people lived in cities than outside of them. By 2050, two-thirds of our species will be urban, but we are increasingly isolated. In 1911, about 5% of British citizens lived alone; a century later that number was 31%. In the United States, ten times as many eighteen-to-thirty-four-year olds live alone now than in 1950—and in urban centers. In parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles, more than 90% live alone.

For the past four decades, psychologists have measured empathy using questionnaires. Empathy has dwindled steadily. The average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75% of people in 1979.

Decreases in empathy foster tribalism and tribalism creates still deeper problems. Look at the political wreckage that has occurred in America. Fifty years ago, Republicans and Democrats disagreed on policy over dinner, but still ate together. Now each side sees the other as stupid, evil, and dangerous. Trolls work tirelessly to provoke as much suffering on the other side as they can. Zaki concludes, “In this bizarre ecosystem, care doesn’t merely evaporate; it reverses.

The philosopher Jeremy Rifkin writes, “The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?”

Whether this has to be is the question Zaki explores in this book.

Zaki believes that we can grow our empathy and become kinder as a result. He notes that there are decades of research suggesting that empathy is less like a fixed trait and more like a skill—something we can sharpen over time and adapt to the modern world. Saki explores this research in his book.

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