Posts Tagged ‘War for Kindness’

Evaluating the Evidence

February 4, 2020

The evidence being evaluated is the evidence found in the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Saki writes, “At various times scientific texts confirmed that the sun revolved around the earth, atoms were the smallest particles in the universe, and the human soul could be located in the pineal gland. The scientific method allowed all of these “facts” to be overwritten as the truth came to light. It’s this dynamism, and the humility that must accompany it, that gives science its power. Science is not a set of facts, but a process of predicting, testing, and rethinking. It is alive.

Zaki continues, “In this book, I review scientific evidence about the forces that strengthen and weaken human empathy and kindness. Most of this evidence comes from the field of psychology. Over the past several years, some high-profile psychological findings have proven less robust than they had seemed. Similar doubts have arisen in political science, economics, biology, and medical research. We psychologists have used this as an opportunity to strengthen our methods, be more transparent about our research process, and clarify exactly what we do and do not know.”

So Zaki and his associates have rated their confidence in the findings presented i this book. They used a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is the weakest and 5 is the strongest. HM is presents all the findings rated 4 or 5, and occasionally findings rated 3 for which HM feels he can add in his opinion.

Claim 0.1: Empathy is related to kindness and prosociality. 5
Sometimes it might appear that science is documenting the obvious. Nevertheless this is necessary, as there frequently are times where the obvious is wrong.

Claim 0.2.: Evolution favors empathy, through selective advantages for prosocial organisms. 5

Claim 0.3: Empathic individuals excel professionally. 4

Claim 0.4: Empathic individuals experience greater subjective well-being. 4

Claim 0.5: It is easier to empathize with one person than many people. 4

Claim 0.6: “Mirroring” in the brain is associated with empathy. 5

Claim 1.1: IQ/intelligence can change with experience. 5

Claim 1.2: Empathy is, in part, genetically determined. 5 (Put emphasis on “in part.” Virtually everyone can increase their empathy)

Claim 1.3: Children’s environments impact their levels of empathy. 4

Claim 1.4: People who carry out necessary evils (such as giving bad news) experience reduced empathy. 4

Claim 2.1: We have the ability to control and regulate our emotions. 5

Claim 2.3: People empathize to help bolster their moral self-image. 4

Claim 2.4: When people think emphasizing will be painful, they avoid it. 4

Claim 2.6 When people believe empathy is a valued norm, they empathize more. 4

Claim 2.7: Purposely cultivating empathy alters the brain. 3
Zaki writes “Several well-conducted studies indicate that empathy and compassion training lead to corresponding changes in the brain. However, almost all of this work focuses on brain changes resulting from contemplative practice, such as loving-kindness meditation. (There are many healthy memory blog post on loving-kindness meditation). These studies should be augmented by additional research examining the neural effects of other empathy-building practices.

Claim 3.1: People naturally empathize more with member of their in-groups , as compared with outsiders. 5

Claim 3.2: We fail to empathize—and often experience antipathy—in competitive contexts. 5

Claim 3.3: Contact generally increases empathy for outsiders. 5

Claim 3.4: Contact can bolster empathy for outsiders amid conflict or competition. 5

Claim 4.1: Theater grows empathy. 3
Depending upon the nature of the play, theater provides a good opportunity to understand the feeling and thinking of others.

Claim 4.2: Literature grows empathy. 4

Claim 4.4 Narrative art can reduce intergroup conflict 4

Claim 5.1 Compassion fatigue is prevalent among caring professionals and detrimental to them. 5

Claim 5.2 Provider empathy has salutary consequences for patient outcomes. 5

Claim 5.4 Social support buffers against burnout. 5

Claim 5.5 Mindfulness reduces burnout for caregivers. 5

Claim 5.6 Mindfulness increases caregiver empathy. 4
(There are many healthy memory blog posts on both mindfulness and meditation)

Claim 6.1 Social norms influence our thoughts and actions. 5

Claim 6.2. People conform to perceived norms and often overestimate the prevalence of extreme positions. 5

Claim 6.3 Empathy begets empathy: Positive and empathic norms spread. 4

Claim 6.6 Social and Emotional Learning programs lead to many benefits (particularly for young children). 5
(There are healthy memory blog posts on social and emotional learning.)

Claim 7.2 Internet anonymity encourages cyberbullying. 4

Claim 7.3 Internet echo chambers encourage and reward extreme and emotional views. 4

Claim 7.4 Virtual reality experiences can decrease stereotyping and discrimination. 4

Claim 7.5: Virtual reality can build empathy. 4

Claim 7.6: Online communities can provide meaningful and helpful support to their members. 4

Claim 7.7: Giving to others helps the helper, making them happier or more fulfilled. 5

Zaki writes that if you want more information, you can find a spreadsheet containing the research that went into vetting each claim at

Working at Empathy, One Piece at a Time

February 3, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Zaki writes that this book focuses on rebuilding empathy when it’s eroded. By pinpointing different pieces of empathy researchers are able to diagnose what has gone wrong and helps them find the most effective solutions.

Callousness can come from thoughtlessness: we discount the suffering of a homeless person because we don’t consider their experiences. In this case, interventions might focus on mentalizing through perspective-taking exercises on virtual reality.

When faced with conflict, we might think a great deal about our enemies, but not care about their well-being. We might even hope for them to suffer. Contact, and especially friendships across group lines, can change that. For instance, burnout among medical professionals—often is the result of too much experience sharing. Contemplative techniques can help people shift themselves toward concern instead. Zaki concludes that in all these cases, understanding what to do with empathy requires first understanding exactly what it is.

Splits and Connections

February 2, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Zaki writes, “Experience sharing, mentalizing, and concern split apart in all sorts of interesting ways. For instance, mentalizing is most useful when we don’t share another’s experiences. To know why a fan of a team you don’t follow just climbed up a signpost, you must understand differences between their emotional landscape and yours. When we fail to understand each other, it’s often because we falsely assume our own knowledge or priorities will map onto someone else’s.”

Zaki continues, Empathic processes activate different brain systems and are useful at different moments. Poker and boxing require keen mentalizing—What does your opponent do? What is his next move?—but are ill-served by concern.” Saki notes that parenting can be the opposite. You might never understand why your toddler is upset, but you can still do what you can to help her. Zaki notes that people can also differ in their empathic landscapes. An emergency room physician probably feels great concern for her patients, but she cannot do her job if she is also taking on their pain. Although individuals with autism spectrum disorder sometimes struggle at mentalizing, they still share and care about others’ feelings. Psychopaths are just the opposite. They are perfectly able to tell what others feel but are unaffected by their pain.

Empathic pieces are also deeply intertwined. Sharing someone else’s emotion draws our attention to what they feel, and thinking about them reliably increases our concern for their well-being. All three empathic processes promote kindness, but in distinct ways. The primatologist Frans de Waal developed what he terms his “Russian Doll Model” of empathy. The primitive process of experience sharing is at the core—turning someone else’s pain into our own creates an impulse to stop it. Newer, more complex forms of empathy are layered on top of that, generating broader sorts of kindness. Through mentalizing, we develop a fine-grained picture of not just what someone else feels, but why they feel it, and—more important—what might make them feel better. This spurs a deeper concern, a response focused not only on our own discomfort but truly on someone else. The global kindness Peter Singer describes in The Expanding Circle is a further extension of concern—pointed not at any one individual, but at people as a whole.


February 1, 2020

This post is based on the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Thinking is one of the three components of empathy, the other two being sharing and caring. Thinking is the active part of the theory of mind. We need to try to figure out what another person, or even species, is thinking about and planning to do. To answer these questions we need to think like a detective, gathering evidence from the behavior and situation to deduce how that individual feels. This cognitive piece of empathy is referred to as “mentalizing,” or explicitly considering someone else’s perspective. Mentalizing is like an everyday form of mind reading and it’s more sophisticated than experience sharing. It requires cognitive firepower that most, but not all, animals don’t have. So mentalizing arrived later in evolution. Though children pick up experience sharing early, it takes them a long time to sharpen their mentalizing skills.

Mentalizing is an extremely important skill, one that good salespeople need. And mentalizing is a skill, like many skills, that can be used for good or evil. Effective confidence men need to be highly skilled at mentalizing, so that they can con and defraud people.

HM saw a documentary film about Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple computer. When Jobs was in high school he made many visits to a Zen Buddhist Priest. Mindfulness, which obviously involves mentalizing, is an important part of Buddhism and their meditations. According to the documentary, Jobs was considering becoming a Buddhist priest. This priest wisely discouraged Jobs from pursuing this career.

HM thinks that Jobs was good at mentalizing, and that this might account for part of his success. Jobs was good at manipulating people to his own ends. His mentalizing skills helped him do this, but the result was that the lives and marriages of these people were ruined so that Jobs could pursue his ends. Jobs would travel to Japan to meditate in Buddhist monasteries, but he stayed at five star hotels during these visits.

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January 31, 2020

This post is based on the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Empathy can be broken down into three components: sharing, thinking about, and caring about. Sharing involves sharing experiences, emotional feelings, and personal distress. Zaki elaborates using this anecdote. He asks us to imagine we’re a senior in college, walking with a close friend to his apartment. On our way in he checks his mailbox, then freezes. He says, “Holy shit. This is it.” You know what he means. You’ve seen him work relentlessly for three years in hope of getting into medical school, and into one program in particular. He’s talked with you maybe thirty times since applying, alternately anxious, helpful, or both. You rush upstairs, and he opens the envelope. His face contorts, and you lean forward, for a moment not knowing whether he’s ecstatic or upset. It becomes apparent that he is not crying happy tears.

Zaki continues, “As your friend collapses into a heap, you might frown, slum, and even tear up yourself. Your mood will probably plummet. This is what empathy researchers call experience sharing: vicariously taking on the emotions we observe in others. Experience sharing is widespread—people “catch” one another’s facial expressions, bodily stress, and moods, both negative and positive. Our brains respond to each other’s experiences and thoughts as if we were experiencing those states ourselves.

Experience sharing is the closest we come to dissolving the boundary between self and other. It is empathy’s leading edge. It is evolutionary ancient, occurring in monkeys, mice, and even geese. It comes online early in life: Infants mimic each other’s cries and take on their mothers’ distress. And it occurs at lightning speed. Seeing your friend grimace, you might mimic his face in a fraction of a second.”

Experience sharing provided the foundation of empathy science. Before the word “empathy” existed philosophers such as Adam Smith described “sympathy,” or “fellow feeling” in ways that tightly match experience sharing. For instance Smith writes that “by changing places in fancy with the sufferer…we come to either conceive or to be affected by what he feels.” Zaki summarizes, “From ‘emotion contagion’ in psychology to mirroring in neuroscience, experience sharing has long been the most famous piece of empathy.”