A recent podcast episode on empathy resonates me, since I’ve been thinking about interdependence and interconnectedness, especially in regards to racial justice, polarization, fear, and white racial resentment. This all also relates to a central question in my art practice—“How do you keep your heart open?”—which is part of a forthcoming art project.
Jamil Zaki, author of “The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World,” and empathy research at Stanford University, speaks directly to this on Hidden Brain (“You 2.0: Empathy Gym,” August 31, 2020).
[I planned to just share one to two quotes but so many passages from the podcast are resonant.]
On how to keep your heart open, or how support in trauma can lead to becoming links in a chain of support
VEDANTAM: Jamil, people who have been through terrible suffering can respond in different ways. Some people turn inward to avoid future pain, while others turn outward. They show empathy for the suffering of other people. I feel like I’ve seen research studies that show both these things. Can you talk about these studies and why people might go in one direction or another after they experience trauma?
JAMIL ZAKI: …We often hear about cycles of violence or the idea that hurt people hurt people. And that’s certainly true in some cases.
But there’s a lot of research that’s actually much more hopeful on what psychologists call altruism born of suffering. This is the idea that sometimes when we’ve gone through great pain, that actually sort of opens us up to caring more about other people and their suffering….
Psychologists don’t really know that much about sort of what causes people, when they experience suffering, to go in one direction or another. But one important factor that they have identified is the support that we receive from other people. So if after a trauma, an individual is able to find a community of others who support them, well, then they’re more likely to recover from their own trauma, and they might also be more likely to turn around and provide that support to others….
Threats and fear-mongering foster cruelty towards out-groups and unity within in-groups
ZAKI: …reminding people of a collective trauma, for instance, can make them more weary of outsiders and sort of more … willing to even endorse violence or aggression towards outsiders. But thinking of a common threat is also one way to bring people within a group closer together. I remember after 9/11 the way that Americans really felt like we were all one because we were facing this really deep trauma together. And likewise, there’s all sorts of evidence that when people feel that they have a common threat that they’re facing, they band together.
[CWY: If we can’t agree that COVID is a real, common threat to us all, that might account for why there’s so much disunity in taking necessary precautions.]
[Note: This is followed by insights on how police are so over-empathetic with fellow cops that they can’t understand civilians’ perspectives on police misconduct.]
On belonging, and how over-emphasizing with one’s in-group correlates to othering
VEDANTAM: …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. …
ZAKI: …Our instinctive empathy might be more driven towards people in our tribe than outside of it….
…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.
And, in fact, this is consistent with research by my friend Emile Bruneau. He’s studied sort of parochial empathy in a lot of different intergroup contexts. And what he finds is that sometimes if you want to predict when someone will be willing to be aggressive towards outsiders or unwilling to compromise with someone on the other side of a conflict, it’s not enough to measure whether they empathize with the people on the outside. You have to also measure how empathic they are to their own group. And it turns out that people who are extraordinarily empathic towards people in their group, even if they’re also empathic towards outsiders, are unwilling to compromise, unwilling to do anything that could threaten their own tribe.
…what this suggests is that sometimes, if we want to open ourselves up to other cultures, to people on the other side of a political or racial divide, maybe what we should start out doing is not just trying to get to know them and empathize more with them, but to recognize if we’re empathizing so much with our group that we’ll be unable to be flexible emotionally.
Dehumanization as avoidance of negative emotions such as guilt
VEDANTAM: …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.
Why our multi-dimensionality matters and how identifying as human can conquer tribalism
ZAKI: …yes, it’s easier to empathize with people who are like us than unlike us, but all of us have many different selves inside us at any given moment, and each self carries with it a different group, maybe of a different size.
So if I think of myself, for instance, as a Stanford person, well, then people at UC Berkeley are my mortal enemy, especially during the big game. But if I think of myself as a Californian, then my in-group, the people who deserve my empathy and who it’s easy to empathize with, that group grows. And if I can think of myself as – I don’t know – an American or a human being, then that group will grow even further.