Jamil Zaki on Empathy and How to Hack It

Jamil Zaki
I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Jamil Zaki: 04:31 It was. Yeah. I always think of my parents’ divorce as an empathy gym for me. It forced me to, almost really as a survival skill, to work at sort of connecting and reading people. It was a high-stakes version of empathy training.
Jamil Zaki: 14:43 Again, I’m not kidding when I say that my parents’ divorce was an empathy gym, and I think a lot of my work now, a lot of my life, surrounds the mission of creating empathy gyms for other people, opportunities they then practice.

That’s Dr. Jamil Zaki, and yes, he did say he’s creating empathy gyms. Not actual places you can go to, but things you can do to get a work-out for your empathy skills. That’s something we seem to need now more than ever. So when I saw his book “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World” and his argument that we can and should exercise this ability we have to read other people and to connect with them — regular listeners to this show will know, I had to invite him on!

Alan Alda: 00:00 This is so great that you can come and talk with me today. You are an expert in something dear to my heart and dear to the heart of this whole podcast, which is empathy. Your introduction to empathy seems to have come at a very early age with your family, your parents.
Jamil Zaki: 00:20 Yeah, that’s right. First, it’s a total pleasure to be here. Yeah, you’re right. I’ve been thinking about empathy since way before I knew what that word meant. It turns out that my parents come from very different places. In the 1970s, Washington State University in Pullman offered full-ride graduate scholarships to students from the world’s poorest nations, and my mom got the scholarship from Peru. My dad actually didn’t get a scholarship. He was not as good a student as my mom, but he went to Washington State anyways from Pakistan. They traveled from Lima and Lahore and met in this tiny little town and fell in love. But I think what they had in common was their sense of foreignness in the U.S. They were both immigrants from such different places.
Alan Alda: 01:07 So they banded together against the unknown world.
Jamil Zaki: 01:11 That’s right. They found solace and comfort in each other and, I think, helped each other get to know the U.S., made each other more comfortable.
Alan Alda: 01:20 Was it good for them that they were very different people from different cultures? Or did that finally get in the way?
Jamil Zaki: 01:26 I think it was good at the beginning, because sometimes, I imagine … Let’s say that both of my parents were from Peru and met in Pullman, they would have so much in common that they could have sort of wrapped themselves in that culture. But, instead, because they were so different from each other and different from their environment, I think they kind of had to adapt together. But then, as they grew more comfortable in the United States, they realized how very little they had in common, which-
Alan Alda: 01:55 What did that do to you as a kid?
Jamil Zaki: 01:57 It was difficult. They started divorcing when I was eight, but it took until I was 12 for them to finish, and it was a difficult split. And I’m also their only child, so when you have these two cultural backgrounds, these two perspectives on the world that are clashing all around you and you’re the only bridge between them, it’s a difficult situation. I kept on bouncing back and forth between their houses. It was very common for me to be shuttling from my mom’s place to my dad’s, but I felt like every time, I had to recalibrate emotionally.
Alan Alda: 02:34 Because they had different personalities, you mean?
Jamil Zaki: 02:36 Absolutely. Yeah. Not just different personalities, which they do, different priorities, different things that make them happy, different things that upset them. As a kid, it’s hard to realize that if you learn sort of the rules that govern one person’s heart, you try to connect with them. And as a kid, you think, “Okay, well, if that worked with my mom, I’ll do the same thing with my dad.”
Alan Alda: 03:00 But it doesn’t work.
Jamil Zaki: 03:01 At all.
Alan Alda: 03:02 What would be an example of that? How would you have to shift your behavior from one house to another?
Jamil Zaki: 03:08 My dad, coming from Pakistan, always used to say that the child in his class who got the top score on a test would go to college, and the child who got the second top score would end up homeless. So, in that culture of extreme poverty, he was really driven to achieve. Achievement meant everything to him, and he worked extremely hard himself. And so when we would talk, he would always want to know what my grades were. We’d talk about how smart he thought I was and how I was underachieving, and so I had to sort of try to perform like I was a future successful physician, I suppose, for him.
Alan Alda: 03:49 How did that contrast with how your mother …
Jamil Zaki: 03:51 She could care less about my achievement.
Alan Alda: 03:54 What was important to her?
Jamil Zaki: 03:55 She wanted me to be close with my family and with her and with her mother, who then lived with us. One person was pushing me to be this relational creature and another was pushing me to be this extremely individualistic high achiever, and I learned … It felt like I was trying to perform different versions of myself.
Alan Alda: 04:19 You had to read each one of them and figure out if you were registering what they wanted from you, what they needed from you. Was that the beginning of your empathy practice?
Jamil Zaki: 04:31 It was. Yeah. I always think of my parents’ divorce as an empathy gym for me. It forced me to, almost really as a survival skill, to work at sort of connecting and reading people. It was a high-stakes version of empathy training.

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Alan Alda: 04:51 So when we talk about empathy, I think it’s always important to say what we mean by the word empathy, because there are a few words that have so many definitions, it’s almost everybody who uses it has his or her own definition.
Jamil Zaki: 05:03 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 05:04 What’s yours?
Jamil Zaki: 05:05 You know The Princess Bride, that film?
Alan Alda: 05:07 Everybody refers to it, but I never saw it.
Jamil Zaki: 05:09 Oh. There’s a famous quote in it from a guy named Inigo Montoya when he says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” And that’s true of empathy.
Alan Alda: 05:19 Yeah, it is.
Jamil Zaki: 05:20 There’s so many definitions. The consensus among psychologists, and I think this is where some of the confusion comes from, is that empathy actually is not just one thing at all. It’s an umbrella term for multiple ways that we connect with each other emotionally. For instance, say that you are with a friend having lunch and he gets a phone call and you don’t know who’s on the other line or what they’re saying, but you can tell it’s not good because he starts to cry.
Alan Alda: 05:45 Right. It’s a clue.
Jamil Zaki: 05:49 Yeah. A bunch of things here might happen in you, right? You might feel bad yourself, vicariously catching his emotion. That’s what we would call emotional empathy. You might also try to figure out what he’s feeling and why, sort of reading him as you put it earlier. That’s what we would call cognitive empathy. And at least if you’re a good friend, you would care about what he’s going through and want him to feel better, which we would call empathic concern, and some people call that compassion.
Alan Alda: 06:16 Right.
Jamil Zaki: 06:16 Those three pieces of empathy together make up our ability to connect with each other.
Alan Alda: 06:20 Yeah. That kind of encompasses what various people mean by empathy, but the first one, where you just read the other person, is possible to have, to experience without wanting to do anything about it.
Jamil Zaki: 06:38 Absolutely.
Alan Alda: 06:38 And for instance, a psychopath can read us. A bully can read us really well, bully or an interrogator. And an unprincipled interrogator can make us feel really bad in order to get us to do what he or she wants, give out the information or whatever it is. Politicians can make us think they feel our pain.
Jamil Zaki: 07:03 Propagandists.
Alan Alda: 07:05 Right, right. So, it doesn’t necessarily lead to good behavior.
Jamil Zaki: 07:09 Oh, absolutely not. I mean, no one piece of empathy, really not even empathy as a whole, is inherently a positive thing. I think that empathy often leads to positive behaviors like kindness and helping each other and caring for-
Alan Alda: 07:26 It’s kind of like the first step. You … Sorry. Graham will cut this out.
Jamil Zaki: 07:31 Yeah, no problem.
Alan Alda: 07:34 It’s kind of like the first step, isn’t it? Where if you’re going to behave well toward another person or look out for their interests, it helps to start off with knowing where they are, what their perspective is.
Jamil Zaki: 07:50 Absolutely. I mean, this is one of the things … There’s all sorts of studies of empathy in non-human animals, and so-
Alan Alda: 07:58 Yeah. That’s so interesting.
Jamil Zaki: 07:59 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 08:00 I heard you talk once about rats having empathy for one another.
Jamil Zaki: 08:03 Absolutely.
Alan Alda: 08:05 And that goes against our notion of rat.
Jamil Zaki: 08:08 But rats have to … Any animal that needs to work together is well served, evolutionarily speaking, by having empathy. Right?
Alan Alda: 08:08 Right.
Jamil Zaki: 08:19 This is sort of like this old debate in evolution. There are people who believed that Darwin’s theory meant that all animals are always competing with every other animal.
Alan Alda: 08:29 Bloody and tooth and claws.
Jamil Zaki: 08:31 Exactly.
Alan Alda: 08:32 Yeah. Which is not the notion that he meant. But if you’re going to belong to a rat pack, it probably is in everybody’s interest to not behave according to the stereotype we have of rats.
Jamil Zaki: 08:45 Exactly. Yeah, but one of the interesting things is that animals, many types of animals … So far, it’s been documented in non-human primates, monkeys, dolphins, elephants, rats, mice, and some birds, and those are just animals that we’ve studied, show evidence of sharing each other’s pain.
Alan Alda: 09:02 How would a rat exhibit that?
Jamil Zaki: 09:03 Well, for one … There’s different ways to look at it. In mice, they’ve looked at it in a really, kind of a sad way. They’ll put two mice in adjacent cages, but the mice can see each other. And then they’ll shock one of them, sort of give one of the mice painful electric shocks, and then they’ll listen to how much the other one squeals when it, too, is receiving a shock. And it turns out that mice squeal more, basically behave as though they’re in greater pain if they’re also looking at another mouse who’s in pain.
Alan Alda: 09:36 What we have to do is connect the scientist who conducts this experiment to his own electric shock, and every time he shocks a mouse, see how much he squeals.
Jamil Zaki: 09:45 I mean, a lot of these studies are morally problematic.
Alan Alda: 09:48 Yeah, I agree.
Jamil Zaki: 09:49 Yeah. I mean, there was one where-
Alan Alda: 09:50 Especially if you’re proving that they feel things.
Jamil Zaki: 09:53 Yes, exactly. You’re discovering emotion by torturing an animal. It’s not-
Alan Alda: 09:58 Yeah, no kidding.
Jamil Zaki: 09:59 It’s not that great. Yeah, I will say, to the credit of my field, as we learn more about non-human animals, we are becoming much more humane in the way that we experiment on them. The NIH, the largest funding body for research, is no longer allowing chimpanzees to be sort of provided to labs for research.
Alan Alda: 10:19 It’s interesting that they start with chimpanzees, our close cousins, and I wonder how long it’ll take till they get to mice. Because there’s this kind of popular assumption that other primates are a lot like us, but surely as you work your way what we call down the scale of evolution, we’re not so, or the animal kingdom, we’re not so convinced.
Jamil Zaki: 10:48 Absolutely. I mean, I think that the more that we probe non-human animals, especially for … Not for things like language, of course, but for things like emotional instincts, these are ancient features of who we are that are not just in us. They’re kind of-
Alan Alda: 11:04 As one or two people have observed on this podcast, we have those traits partly because we inherit them from our other animal ancestors.
Jamil Zaki: 11:14 Of course. One interesting thing about human empathy, though, is if you get a bunch of chimpanzees and one of them is in pain or has suffered a loss in, say, a fight, other chimpanzees will feel basically stressed out by that. But instead of knowing how to, sometimes, not always, instead of knowing how to comfort their sort of fellow chimpanzees, they’ll just jump on top of him, sort of trying to comfort him, but not really well calculating what he needs.
Alan Alda: 11:43 That’s [inaudible 00:11:47] to say comics [inaudible 00:11:48].
Jamil Zaki: 11:49 I think one of the great-
Alan Alda: 11:51 I have relatives like that.
Jamil Zaki: 11:52 One of the great things about human empathy is it really represents the combination of our deep, emotional connection with each other with the power of our, the unique power of human imagination, the ability to see the world in a way that’s removed from just our lived experience right now. And so I can empathize not just with you sitting across the table right now, but with people who are thousands of miles away, with fictional characters who have never suffered and yet can move me. That is something that I do believe is uniquely human.
Alan Alda: 12:26 I think that’s one of the things that those of us who are lucky enough to be in the theater, which encompasses film and other forms, are lucky because we get to offer that to the rest of the public, to the rest of our community, the idea that we get up before you and give you the chance to see into the heart of another person, to empathize with somebody who you might not ordinarily even meet.
Jamil Zaki: 13:01 Storytelling and acting are such powerful sort of engines for empathy on both sides, actually. My friend Thalia Goldstein has done work demonstrating that kids who get training in acting actually exhibit improved empathy as a result of that training. Also, my colleagues and I have done work showing that people who attend a play develop empathy, not just for those fictional characters, but for real people. I mean, in essence, it’s like you’re practicing walking around, as you say, not just in the behavior of another person, but in the heart of that person and you’re showing the heart of that person to others. It’s like a performance-enhancing drug for empathy, in a way.
Alan Alda: 13:47 That brings up the idea that empathy, in your view and in my view, too, and a lot of people who have studied it, that empathy is not just something you come in with and you’re stuck with the amount you’re born with, but you can actually improve on it. And you can also find yourself losing empathy from time to time. Why do you think we lose it? Is it stress?
Jamil Zaki: 14:12 First of all, absolutely. I mean, I think that a lot of us have the assumption that empathy is something that’s just baked into us sort of when we’re born by our genes and that you have some level of empathy, I have some level, and it’s just going to stay there for the rest of our life.
Alan Alda: 14:27 When I was a kid, I used to think that people, men with muscles, must have been born that way because I didn’t have any. I lived with that illusion for decades because it was much easier to think, “Well, I wasn’t born with it,” than to go to a gym.
Jamil Zaki: 14:43 Again, I’m not kidding when I say that my parents’ divorce was an empathy gym, and I think a lot of my work now, a lot of my life, surrounds the mission of creating empathy gyms for other people, opportunities they then practice.
Alan Alda: 14:58 You think it’s been shown scientifically that you actually can increase empathy by working on it first of all?
Jamil Zaki: 15:05 Oh, yes, absolutely, in lots of different ways. One of the most impressive studies came out of Germany a couple of years ago. They used a technique called loving-kindness meditation. Have you ever heard of this?
Alan Alda: 15:15 No, I don’t think so.
Jamil Zaki: 15:16 It’s a meditation technique where you focus your goodwill, you’re sort of really concentrating your compassion first on yourself, then on someone close to you, then on a stranger, and then on all living beings, which sounds a little bit grandiose, but-
Alan Alda: 15:34 Sounds a little touchy-feely.
Jamil Zaki: 15:36 But really, it’s a technique that has been [crosstalk 00:15:39].
Alan Alda: 15:39 So, when you do that, then do you take an empathy test to see if you’ve improved?
Jamil Zaki: 15:44 These scientists had people do loving-kindness meditation for 40 weeks, a long … I mean, this is like the length of a full-time pregnancy. But they did this every day, and what they found is that … They ran all sorts of tests on it before and after, and what they found is that this type of meditation practice improved people’s ability to read others’ emotions. It made them more likely to help other people.
But here’s the most amazing part. They scanned their brains before and after they had done this training, and they found that parts of the brain that are associated with empathy actually grew in volume as a function of the training, and that change in the brain was tracked to people’s greater ability to empathize after the training. So, it’s like it’s changing your body. It’s literally building a muscle, in a way.
Alan Alda: 16:34 Yeah, right, in your head.
Jamil Zaki: 16:35 Yeah.

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Alan Alda: 16:36 What are the parts of the brain associated with empathy, without naming things that none of us can recognize?
Jamil Zaki: 16:44 The first thing to say is that … And I was just talking about parts of the brain associated with empathy, but if anyone ever tells you that there’s one part of the brain associated with something as complicated as empathy or spirituality, you can stop listening to them safely. These are very complicated human abilities that are supported by whole systems in the brain.
Alan Alda: 17:05 Networks.
Jamil Zaki: 17:06 Exactly.
Alan Alda: 17:07 Yeah. But are they generally associated with parts of the brain involved in being social, the awareness of other people and that kind of thing?
Jamil Zaki: 17:19 Yeah, absolutely. Actually, my work in graduate school is around exploring these systems, and I’ll just say that there are two that psychologists have paid a lot of attention to. One is what’s sometimes known as the mirror neuron system. Right?
Alan Alda: 17:32 Yeah.
Jamil Zaki: 17:33 Basically, areas in the brain that I would activate if I was in pain or if I was feeling joy or if I was feeling disgust are also coming online when I see you experience those things. That’s one property of the brain that’s kind of mirror anger resonance. And then there’s another system in the brain that’s associated with, I would say, imagination, so your ability to think about the past and the future, your ability to think about fiction and fictional characters, and your ability to understand what someone else is thinking. There’s a great way to think about that brain system, which is that it allows you to escape your own perspective and see things from a different point of view.
Alan Alda: 18:19 That sounds like a system in the brain that I’d love to see and love to test when people read a statement in contrast with speaking spontaneously about the same thing, because the voice goes dead when you read.
Jamil Zaki: 18:37 Absolutely.
Alan Alda: 18:37 Almost everybody.
Jamil Zaki: 18:38 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 18:39 Even people who are trained to read for others have a different cadence, different tone. And I’m wondering if social parts of the brain are simply not contacted if we don’t see the words on the paper, process them as words jump around in the head for meaning, but skip the parts that involve social contact and just process the words into speech. I don’t know what we’d learn if we knew that, but I hear the difference in the voice and I’m wondering what’s going on that produces that.
Jamil Zaki: 19:18 Well, you asked earlier about what are the things that could cause … We’re talking about building empathy, what could cause it to atrophy. And I think what you’re hitting here actually is quite relevant. I think a lot about social media and why it might be problematic for empathy, and one of the reasons may be that it reduces us to strings of text. If I encounter you on Twitter, I’m not hearing your voice. I’m just seeing the words that have come out of your mind. My friend Juliana Schroeder has done research on this. She’s done this study where you have people read out loud their political opinions, and then a separate group of people either hear the voice of that first person talking about how they feel-
Alan Alda: 20:05 Or read the text.
Jamil Zaki: 20:07 What do you think happens?
Alan Alda: 20:08 It sounds like the text divorces them from the person.
Jamil Zaki: 20:13 That’s right. In fact, people are less likely to think that the person is fully human-
Alan Alda: 20:19 Oh, wow.
Jamil Zaki: 20:20 … if they’re reading text from a … especially if they disagree with them already.
Alan Alda: 20:24 I would take it a step further and not have them read the statement, but spontaneously say it from the heart how they really feel.
Jamil Zaki: 20:32 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 20:33 And I wonder if you’d even find people considering a little bit more what the person has to say instead of dismissing it off the bat.
Jamil Zaki: 20:43 Yeah. I think that so often these days in our culture we feel like what we’re getting from, especially people we disagree with, is some canned, bad faith argument as opposed to their real expression of feeling, their expression of their experiences. And I think if we could break that barrier, it might be easier to connect.
Jamil Zaki and I will talk about how to break that barrier when we come back after this short break.
MIDROLL
This is Clear and Vivid and now back to my conversation with Jamil Zaki and this idea of an empathy gym
Alan Alda: 21:02 How do we break the barrier in normal life? What do you do in an empathy gym? How do you run an empathy gym? You actually have an empathy gym?
Jamil Zaki: 21:12 Now I’m thinking I should build one. Maybe we can at least get a room in an equinox somewhere, but I-
Alan Alda: 21:18 Just don’t do to us what they do to mice.
Jamil Zaki: 21:19 Yeah, definitely not. I mean, so the first step to walking into your own empathy gym is realizing that you can build your empathy. Ironically, it turns out that just believing that empathy is a trait can stop you from working at it. This is actually relevant to … You might have heard about my colleague Carol Dweck’s idea of mindsets, that if you have a fixed mindset, if you think that you can never get smarter …
Alan Alda: 21:48 Then you don’t.
Jamil Zaki: 21:49 Yeah. Because you see intellectual challenges as a threat that will expose how not super smart you are.
Alan Alda: 21:56 Ah, I see.
Jamil Zaki: 21:57 Whereas if you think that you can get smarter, you embrace those challenges as opportunities for growth.
Alan Alda: 22:02 Right.
Jamil Zaki: 22:03 Carol and I have done the same thing with empathy. We find that when people believe that empathy is a trait, they actually shy away from, for instance, connecting with people of different races from themselves, with different political persuasions, but if they believe that they can grow their empathy, they work harder at it in those challenging situations. So, the first step to get into your empathy gym is to realize that you can build that muscle.
Alan Alda: 22:27 Okay. Once realizing that, what do you do about it?
Jamil Zaki: 22:32 One thing that we talk a lot about is connecting with individuals rather than thinking of groups. Sometimes, if you think of somebody, especially if somebody’s different from you in some way, they’re a different race or age or gender or some part of their identity is different from yours, it’s easy to become uncurious about that person and to reduce them and just say, “Well, they’re just a Democrat or Republican,” as opposed to thinking, “This person has seven siblings and they play the tuba and they wanted to be chiropractors,” the idiosyncrasies that make us human and make it impossible to sort of look away from our humanness.
Alan Alda: 23:10 There’s an interesting thing in my memory related to this. In the ’50s, there was an effort to do just what you’re describing, make contact with some actual person in the other group, and it boiled down to a kind of mantra, “Take a Jew to lunch. Take a black man to lunch.”
Jamil Zaki: 23:35 Huh.
Alan Alda: 23:36 And I would hear the outcome as something not quite what we had hoped for, which was they’d become friendly with that one individual and it would lead to a compliment like, “You’re a credit to your race.”
Jamil Zaki: 23:54 Oh, yeah.
Alan Alda: 23:55 Meaning you’re okay, but I’m not sure about the rest of you.
Jamil Zaki: 23:59 Yeah. It’s true. I mean, that can be one outcome of those types of interactions is that you end up extracting that one person from the category but not changing your opinion about the group as a whole. But there’s other evidence that, for instance, when white college students are randomly assigned to have a black roommate in their first year of college, at the end of that year, they exhibit less prejudice implicit and I think-
Alan Alda: 23:59 In general.
Jamil Zaki: 24:25 Yeah, in general.
Alan Alda: 24:26 General. Yeah.
Jamil Zaki: 24:26 To where we can … Yeah.
Alan Alda: 24:29 It seems like the only way to start to and maybe to develop a sample size greater than one when you’re considering another group.
Jamil Zaki: 24:40 Well, when you go to the gym, you don’t just go once. Right?
Alan Alda: 24:44 Right. Right.
Jamil Zaki: 24:44 One workout will not grow you those muscles that you …
Alan Alda: 24:49 In my book on communicating, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? I talk about a study that I was part of that tried to build empathy by tracking people who during the day for a week or two, where they would report on encounters they had and whether or not they actually looked at the other person or tried to figure out what they were feeling during the day. And there seemed to be evidence that later when they came into the lab and took empathy tests, they rose, I think, significantly in their ability to empathize. That gave me confidence that you could work on it, and I do it during the day. I try with strangers. I read their faces and try to figure out what they’re feeling, what they’re going through.
Jamil Zaki: 25:50 Absolutely. I mean, that’s the type of training that’s available to us all the time, and that’s part of what worries me a little bit about the way that we’re interacting increasingly these days, which is sort of not in these live person-to-person interactions but, rather, online, that we’re presenting a version of ourselves and seeing a presented version of other people.
Alan Alda: 26:12 I get the impression that there are some good things about the way we interact, say, social media and there are bad things. Do you have the list of good and bad things?
Jamil Zaki: 26:25 Absolutely.
Alan Alda: 26:26 What are they?
Jamil Zaki: 26:27 Well, I think of social media as humanity’s greatest empathic opportunity of all time.
Alan Alda: 26:34 Which we don’t take advantage of.
Jamil Zaki: 26:37 I mean, because it flattens our landscape and makes it possible to connect with anyone, anyplace, at any time on their own terms. I mean, you could shop for people’s experiences, in a way. You could have access, whereas before [inaudible 00:26:52] disasters somewhere on the other side of the globe. Before, maybe you’d read a newspaper article about it that cites the statistics. Now, you could probably find videos that people are taking of themselves responding to it. So you could connect so much more vividly and directly with other people around the world, but, unfortunately, the platforms that we use most often are not built with that goal in mind. They’re built to keep us online, which often means sort of playing to our weaknesses rather than our strengths, to vanity and fear and anger.
Alan Alda: 27:30 Yeah.
Jamil Zaki: 27:30 I’ll give you an example. On Twitter, it turns out that when people express outrage towards people who are different from themselves, they get rewarded through additional likes and re-tweets, and that sort of little dose of social reward reinforces that behavior, like giving a … Not to go back to rats too much, but it’s like giving a rat a piece of cheese for acting in a certain way. Guess what, it will perform that same action again. And so when people get rewarded for expressing outrage, they’re more likely to express outrage later on. It ratchets up their anger based on the way that incentives on Twitter work.
Alan Alda: 28:11 I’ve even heard it described as the result of algorithms deliberately designed to give you little shocks and rewards in a sequence that keeps you glued to the app.
Jamil Zaki: 28:26 Oh, yeah. I mean, social media platforms operate on very similar principles to casinos. I don’t think people realize that when they go online, it’s like they’re walking into a place, they have oxygen pumped in, and the lights are on 24 hours a day.
Alan Alda: 28:43 And no clocks.
Jamil Zaki: 28:44 Yep, yep. Exactly. And there used to be this thing where on Facebook, you’d scroll for a while and then you had to press a button if you wanted to get more content. And they took that away several years ago. Nobody noticed, but it has this effect of taking the clocks away. You can just scroll and listen-
Alan Alda: 29:05 Infinitely.
Jamil Zaki: 29:06 … bathed in this ambient information pictures about people.
Alan Alda: 29:10 And then there’s this thing that negative posts, negative posts seem to rise faster than positive posts. Do you suppose that’s a human failing?
Jamil Zaki: 29:22 I think it’s a human failing that is also incentivized by these platforms. It is true that we pay a lot of attention to anger just naturally in social environments.
Alan Alda: 29:36 So that keeps us online longer.
Jamil Zaki: 29:38 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 29:38 And exposes us to more ads.
Jamil Zaki: 29:41 There are other places online, though, that are much healthier, so-
Alan Alda: 29:44 Like what? That sounds great.
Jamil Zaki: 29:45 Yeah. There’s this great website called Change a View that started as a online message board.
Alan Alda: 29:52 Change of View or Change Your View?
Jamil Zaki: 29:54 No, Change A View.
Alan Alda: 29:56 Oh, Change A View. Okay.
Jamil Zaki: 29:58 Although change of view sounds like another good concept. Change A View started as a message board. People would post if they had an opinion that they knew was somewhat controversial, but they also were open to learning more.
Alan Alda: 30:16 What a good idea.
Jamil Zaki: 30:17 And so you’d post a really heartfelt version of why you feel this way.
Alan Alda: 30:22 And how many trolls entered without a moment’s notice?
Jamil Zaki: 30:25 I’m sure many, but here’s the thing. The way that you were incentivized, the things that rose to the top were scored differently than they would be, say, on Twitter. What happened would be people had to respond, and you could only respond if you wrote at least two paragraphs. So you couldn’t just hurl an insult at somebody.
Alan Alda: 30:43 Yes.
Jamil Zaki: 30:44 You had to write a fair amount in order to get posted. And then people would … It’s called upvoting. They’d basically push posts to the top of the page, and the thing that they would upvote on is if it was illuminating to them. They would give it a light bulb if it had changed their way of seeing something and shed light on the issue that they saw.
Alan Alda: 31:06 So light bulbs would rise-
Jamil Zaki: 31:08 Exactly.
Alan Alda: 31:08 … a little faster.
Jamil Zaki: 31:09 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 31:10 That’s really interesting to develop a way that a large number of people can enter into one another’s growth space, in a way, instead of a wrestling match.
Jamil Zaki: 31:25 Well, I think the way that you put it was really great, that when we can spontaneously express ourselves and see that expression from somebody else, that’s an avenue to real connection that I think could happen in any space. It could happen online, it could happen in person over the phone. I’ve been teaching this class at Stanford called Becoming Kinder that, in essence, we talk about the science of empathy, but each week I issue a kind of challenge to my students.
Alan Alda: 31:55 What would be an example of that?
Jamil Zaki: 31:56 Well, to the point that we’re discussing now, we’ve got one that we call Disagree Better. This one always freaks out my students, but, yeah, I basically tell them, “Find someone you disagree with. It doesn’t have to be about a political issue, but it has to be about something that’s important to you. And then, instead of just talking about your opinions, interview the person about how they came to have that opinion in the first place, and then share with them how you came to have that opinion, your opinion, in the first place. Basically, try to make a human connection around the disagreement rather than focusing on the things that you hate about each other’s opinions.”
Alan Alda: 32:35 You’ve done this.
Jamil Zaki: 32:37 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 32:38 And does it happen that people arrive at a changed opinion or do they just tolerate one another better with different opinions?
Jamil Zaki: 32:48 Not a lot of people said that they changed their opinion in my class or that they felt that they changed the opinion of the other person, but it was interesting. A lot of them said that they understood the other person’s perspective and respected them more. Sometimes, someone has an opinion that’s different from us and we just assume that that makes them a bad person. I personally don’t believe that most people are bad. I think that people respond to the environment and experiences that they’ve lived through, and I think that understanding that people’s opinions and their views and their feelings are responses to their life stories is a really powerful way to get beyond our stereotypes.
And that’s what happened to my students. There was one student who talked with her father about a really contentious issue, and she said that after listening to her dad, she understood him more and sort of respected his perspective, but that after she had listened to him, he turned around and listened to her, she felt, in the deepest way he had listened to her on this issue ever. It’s almost as though giving that person air time to really talk about themselves makes them more curious about you as well.
Alan Alda: 34:04 And the key to it seems to be to let the other person know how you arrived historically, biographically at this position that you hold, which gives it flesh and blood and it’s not just an intellectual stab you’re making at the other person. It’s a lot like what Katharine Hayhoe does when she talks about climate change. She’s a climatologist who’s very successful talking about it, and she spends a lot of time letting other people … Before she talks about climate, she lets them know pretty much how much alike they are and how she arrived at her understanding of what she now holds as her view on climate change as very similar. It seems like what they used to do in Congress, where they could accept one another at the end of the day as fellow Americans, fellow patriots who had different views about how to make the country work better. And now, you don’t hear stories like that so much anymore.
Jamil Zaki: 35:16 No. I mean, my friend Adam Waytz has this research where he shows that both Republicans and Democrats believe that their party holds their opinions because they care about the country and the other party is cynically sort of just out for its own aims, for instance, and even said fundamental danger to the country.
Alan Alda: 35:36 A horrible thing would be if they’re both right.
Jamil Zaki: 35:38 Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of the political equivalent of that Lake Wobegon effect, where all the men are strong and all the women are beautiful and all the kids are above average. Right?
Alan Alda: 35:51 Right.
Jamil Zaki: 35:53 Whatever we determine is our group, we think of as above average and whoever is on the other side, we think of as below average. We obviously all can’t be right.
Alan Alda: 36:02 Isn’t there a study where people were asked whether they were average or above average and most people said they were above average?
Jamil Zaki: 36:09 Oh, it’s-
Alan Alda: 36:11 You kind of can’t be above average.
Jamil Zaki: 36:14 It’s true on every dimension, almost every dimension. People think they’re kinder than average. 80+% of people think they’re kinder than average, better looking than average, smarter than average. Now, all we have to do is make sure that 80% of them think they’re more humble than average.
Alan Alda: 36:28 Yeah. That’s probably true.
Jamil Zaki: 36:34 But I heard you talking with Isabel Allende recently.
Alan Alda: 36:38 Yes.
Jamil Zaki: 36:38 And she was talking about, beautifully described how stories matter to people more than numbers or statistics. And I think that’s one of the things that we’ve lost in our current moment is we don’t see each other’s stories anymore. We don’t have curiosity about each other’s stories. We just are focused on the endpoint of those stories if it’s an opinion we don’t like, if it’s a viewpoint that we can’t handle.
Alan Alda: 37:03 I was very interested to read a couple of papers on storytelling involving MRI machines. And if I see a movie, and I hope I don’t murder this research by summarizing it, but if I see a movie, certain parts of my brain are activated, and if I tell you the story of that movie, the same parts of your brain are activated. It’s as though we share the same experience of the story, and story seems to be a way to bring people together into the same space, the same mental space.
Jamil Zaki: 37:47 That’s right. Yeah.
Alan Alda: 37:48 And through story, there’s an automatic, I think there’s an automatic chance to empathize, because a story, if it has story-like elements, it seems to me it has somebody wanting something, trying to achieve something. There’s often an obstacle. We were on our way to the store to get ice cream and we ran out of gas and it was terrible. And we tell simple stories like that to one another, and we have a chance to feel for one another through that.
Jamil Zaki: 38:20 Because even though our circumstances are different, the contours of our experience are often universal.
Alan Alda: 38:27 Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and to understand that what this other person has gone through is like what we went through and vice versa is a chance to feel our community with the other person.
Jamil Zaki: 38:40 That’s right.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan Alda: 38:41 Now tell me the answer to a very important question. Are you attempting to make a world-class dish of oatmeal? I forget where I heard that, but tell me about this.
Jamil Zaki: 38:55 I have two small children. They’re four and two. I think you read about this from my lab website, because on my biography it says I’m trying to make Michelin Star-quality oatmeal. They are very discerning connoisseurs of just a few dishes.
Alan Alda: 39:14 What is it they like about good oatmeal? And what are you trying to accomplish?
Jamil Zaki: 39:18 For a long time, I thought they just liked that their mother had made it instead of me.
Alan Alda: 39:21 That may be true.
Jamil Zaki: 39:25 They would say, “Oh, Papa, you always make bad oatmeal.” And so I tinkered with the recipe for-
Alan Alda: 39:32 What do you start with? You start with steel cut?
Jamil Zaki: 39:34 Yep, yep. You start with steel cut. And I learned … I was doing honey and a little bit of banana and kind of mashing the banana in there and my proportions were all off. They want a fair amount of banana, much more than I would want. And it’s 2%, not whole, to add on top.
Alan Alda: 39:54 2% milk?
Jamil Zaki: 39:55 Yeah, yeah.
Alan Alda: 39:56 Oh, wow. These kids are very particular.
Jamil Zaki: 40:00 They really are. But I’m happy-
Alan Alda: 40:03 So now, do you take the oatmeal and pour it into boiling water or do you pour it into cold water and boil it?
Jamil Zaki: 40:09 Cold water and boil it.
Alan Alda: 40:10 That’s what I do, and it doesn’t say to do that on the can.
Jamil Zaki: 40:13 Yeah, I know. I know, but that’s-
Alan Alda: 40:15 And it comes out nuttier.
Jamil Zaki: 40:18 Well, I’d love to have you try your recipe on all [inaudible 00:40:21].
Alan Alda: 40:22 Well, you think I want to expose myself to your kids, to their judgment?
Jamil Zaki: 40:27 They’re tough critics. They really are.
Alan Alda: 40:33 Who are the toughest people you’ve worked with in trying to help them be empathic? Have you gone as far as to work with neo-Nazis?
Jamil Zaki: 40:43 I haven’t worked directly with neo-Nazis, although in my book I talk about Tony McAleer, who was a neo-Nazi in Canada but then was set on a path to reform, actually by connecting with one individual who was Jewish. And now he is a co-founder of this group called Life After Hate. But to your question, what’s the most challenging groups that I’ve worked with? One of the hardest groups that I’ve worked with are people in medical settings, physicians, nurses, and social workers.
Alan Alda: 41:13 Really?
Jamil Zaki: 41:13 Yeah. Because these are very empathic people, but sometimes if they empathize in the wrong way, they get totally exhausted by it. They sort of lose themselves because they’re drowning in other people’s pain. Some of them feel like they have a terrible choice to make, either I continue empathizing and sort of grind myself down into a nub or I switch off my empathy almost on purpose, dehumanize my patients so that I can keep on being a person. Let me be clear that no physician or nurse or social worker would say that they’re doing that.
Alan Alda: 41:46 But would do it deliberately probably. There’s probably a process. Helen Riess, who trains physicians to have better empathy, makes a big point of saying to them, “You have to get in with empathy, and then you have to know how to get out-”
Jamil Zaki: 42:04 That’s right.
Alan Alda: 42:04 “… or you burn out or you close down.”
Jamil Zaki: 42:07 Yeah, that’s right. I mean, so this is the same, very similar message that I deliver to folks in the medical world as well. Another thing that I say is … This is probably dating me, but when I was a kid, stereos didn’t just have volume knobs. They had these equalizers. You could push up base or treble or mid-range. And I would say, “Think about your empathy as an equalizer. You have different types of empathy. You can turn down your sense that you’re taking on people’s pain but turn up your concern for them. Simultaneously, you can switch between types of empathy, and there are some types that are healthier than others.” If I’m feeling exactly what you’re feeling, that would be an unsustainable way for me to empathize if I’m constantly surrounded by people who are suffering a lot, and it might not be the most helpful thing for them either.
Alan Alda: 42:59 In a way, you have to get some empathic distance.
Jamil Zaki: 43:01 Yeah. I don’t want my therapist crying while I’m talking to him, saying, “Wow, your life really is that bad.”
Alan Alda: 43:07 Oh, my god. Have you thought of suicide?
Jamil Zaki: 43:09 Yeah, exactly. I want my therapist to see me, care for me, but not necessarily to feel exactly what I’m feeling in that moment.
Alan Alda: 43:26 Yeah, that’s the skill of it. It’s not touchy-feely as much as it sounds to a lot of people. It’s a real tool, I think.
Jamil Zaki: 43:37 Absolutely.
Alan Alda: 43:39 And it has to be used, like all tools, has to be used carefully.
Jamil Zaki: 43:43 People often ask me, “What’s the right level of empathy to feel? Are you telling me I can build empathy, so that means I need to turn it up to maximum volume at all times?” I say, “No. In fact, i won’t tell you where your empathy should be. I just want you to know that you’re the one controlling the knob.”
Alan Alda: 44:01 That’s great. What are we leaving out? What should I know more about this?
Jamil Zaki: 44:07 Well, I think one important thing is that what we pay attention to in our culture becomes magnetic to us. People are a very conformist species, and we tend to do what other people around us do. But sometimes it’s hard to know what the majority really feels or thinks, and so we often look to the loudest people in our culture and assume that they represent everybody. So, we see bullies in our schools or we see very mean people on Twitter or on Capitol Hill when we ever …
Alan Alda: 44:07 Right.
Jamil Zaki: 44:39 And we assume that that’s what our culture is and we kind of fall in line. I think that it’s really problematic and dangerous how cynical we’ve become about our capacity for kindness. Since my book came out, I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who say, “I want to be more empathic, and I want our culture to be more empathic, but I’m the only one.” And I think, “Can I put you in a group chat with each other?” There’s many people who want this, and I think when we focus on kindness and also make our own kindness and empathy visible, we can sort of … That’s the first step to going beyond just building our own empathy in our own empathy gym and starting to sort of provide that opportunity for our culture more broadly.
Alan Alda: 45:23 It seems that there needs to be … From what you say, it sounds like what we need to do in order to have more people exercising empathy, including exercising it at us, and make it more palatable for everybody to do that, it seems that people need to raise the volume of their own thoughts about empathy. I mean, if we’re listening to the loudest voices in the room and the room is the nation, then somebody’s got to at least whisper about it’s worth it to be kind or it’s worth it to listen. It’s worth it to consider what the other person is thinking and feeling and how they got there. So, I guess, I mean a book like yours and through the efforts we try to make on this podcast is an attempt to do that. What else can be done?
Jamil Zaki: 46:21 Well, I mean, I think that first of all, you’re exactly right, making it loud, sort of communicating the value of human connection. Not just the value, the absolute necessity of human connection to our survival is the beginning. That’s the start, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do and that’s what you’ve been trying to do. And I think the other thing is to notice how prevalent kindness already is.
Alan Alda: 46:48 How do you counter the idea that kindness or listening or even just communicating well is weakness?
Jamil Zaki: 46:58 With data. There’s-
Alan Alda: 47:00 Ah, good. So what would be an example of that?
Jamil Zaki: 47:03 Oh, there’s all sorts of evidence that people who are attuned to others or who work to be attuned to others succeed even in ways that cynics would be impressed by. They’re more successful professionally. They rise to positions of leadership. They’re more influential on others. I mean, I don’t think of empathy as something that you do just to succeed or get ahead, but one can frame it that way. I mean, there are many ways that empathy helps the person who experiences it, is an advantage, not a weakness.
Alan Alda: 47:36 Do you think leadership classes are being taught in that context now?
Jamil Zaki: 47:41 Not enough, but I see a movement in that direction. And I think that’s very important because leaders don’t only lead by example. They also set the tone for their cultures. They determine what is most visible, the people who are rewarded and highlighted. Who’s the employee of the month? Is it somebody who made a bunch of sales? Or is it somebody who helped a lot of people in the organization work better together? The people who we raise up become the examples for the folks around them.
We did one study in middle schools where we asked students how much they cared about empathy and why, and then we collated their responses. Because it turned out that most of these students really felt positively about empathy. And then when they got back to class, we showed them a brochure of their friends and classmates and why they valued empathy. So we weren’t just saying empathy is important and good. We were saying, “Look around you. The people around you care and value caring in and of itself.” And that made students believe that empathy was more popular and that, in turn, made them act more kindly. It’s not just about making ourselves loud. It’s also about helping people notice maybe the quiet majority around them that is yearning for more connection, not less.
Alan Alda: 49:02 Well, from your mouth to all of our ears, that sounds great. Our time is up now, but we always end our show with seven quick questions and invite seven quick answers. And usually, they devolve into long conversations. Oh, wait a second. Oh.
Jamil Zaki: 49:02 I think I can get it. Right here. Yeah, no problem.
Alan Alda: 49:28 Let me get this up where I can read it. Okay, first question. What do you wish you really understood?
Jamil Zaki: 49:40 I wish I really understood how to make my kids happy all the time.
Alan Alda: 49:45 Oh, that’s nice. Can I come live at your house?
Jamil Zaki: 49:49 Well, again, I wish it because I don’t know.
Alan Alda: 49:52 Oh, then cancel that. How do you tell someone they have their facts … Sorry. How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Jamil Zaki: 50:03 I start by asking them where they got those facts.
Alan Alda: 50:05 Mm. What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Jamil Zaki: 50:15 I won’t use the language that they said, but I was talking about the value of empathy and caring, and somebody said, “Well, but what if I just don’t give a bleep?”
Alan Alda: 50:28 That sounds like the beginning of a long conversation.
Jamil Zaki: 50:30 Well, then I wonder why you’re here.
Alan Alda: 50:32 How did you get like that? Okay. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Jamil Zaki: 50:43 Oh, you can show them that you’re not paying attention, maybe look at your phone.
Alan Alda: 50:51 That seems to work a lot. How do you like to start up a real conversation with someone you don’t know at a dinner party?
Jamil Zaki: 51:02 I like to ask people about their recent experiences that meant something to them. So, what’s the last time that you were really, that you felt frustrated? Or what’s the last time that you were surprised by something? What’s the last time-
Alan Alda: 51:18 They don’t feel you’re prying?
Jamil Zaki: 51:20 I mean, you have to … Oh, maybe that’s not the first sentence in the conversation.
Alan Alda: 51:24 Oh, you always start and say, “You look frustrated. How did that happen?” How would you phrase it?
Jamil Zaki: 51:33 One way in is by noticing something together, right?
Alan Alda: 51:33 Ah.
Jamil Zaki: 51:36 So a great, or much more low impact but fun way to start a conversation is to notice something around the room and then ask whether the other person notices it too and start telling stories about it.
Alan Alda: 51:48 Oh, that’s great. That’s a good idea. What gives you confidence?
Jamil Zaki: 51:55 Experience and doing the homework. I’ve been talking about empathy for so long. It has only been recently that I felt that whatever question people can ask, I probably have thought about it before. Now maybe I forgot what I learned.
Alan Alda: 52:15 But experience, that really does help. Okay, last question. What book changed your life?
Jamil Zaki: 52:22 Oh, god, so many. I’ll just go with Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
Alan Alda: 52:29 Why?
Jamil Zaki: 52:30 I was 17 and learning about storytelling and his style of storytelling and the power of that book. It was just so weird because it’s this apocalyptic fiction and it’s about the invention of nuclear weapons and also has all these other elements to it, but just his narrative voice and the weirdness of the story made me know that I wanted to write books for the rest of my life.
Alan Alda: 38:41 Now tell me the answer to a ONE MORE very important question. Are you attempting to make a world-class dish of oatmeal? I forget where I heard that, but tell me about this.
Jamil Zaki: 38:55 I have two small children. They’re four and two. I think you read about this from my lab website, because on my biography it says I’m trying to make Michelin Star-quality oatmeal. They are very discerning connoisseurs of just a few dishes.
Alan Alda: 39:14 What is it they like about good oatmeal? And what are you trying to accomplish?
Jamil Zaki: 39:18 For a long time, I thought they just liked that their mother had made it instead of me.
Alan Alda: 39:21 That may be true.
Jamil Zaki: 39:25 They would say, “Oh, Papa, you always make bad oatmeal.” And so I tinkered with the recipe for-
Alan Alda: 39:32 What do you start with? You start with steel cut?
Jamil Zaki: 39:34 Yep, yep. You start with steel cut. And I learned … I was doing honey and a little bit of banana and kind of mashing the banana in there and my proportions were all off. They want a fair amount of banana, much more than I would want. And it’s 2%, not whole, to add on top.
Alan Alda: 39:54 2% milk?
Jamil Zaki: 39:55 Yeah, yeah.
Alan Alda: 39:56 Oh, wow. These kids are very particular.
Jamil Zaki: 40:00 They really are. But I’m happy-
Alan Alda: 40:03 So now, do you take the oatmeal and pour it into boiling water or do you pour it into cold water and boil it?
Jamil Zaki: 40:09 Cold water and boil it.
Alan Alda: 40:10 That’s what I do, and it doesn’t say to do that on the can.
Jamil Zaki: 40:13 Yeah, I know. I know, but that’s-
Alan Alda: 40:15 And it comes out nuttier.
Jamil Zaki: 40:18 Well, I’d love to have you try your recipe on all [inaudible 00:40:21].
Alan Alda: 40:22 Well, you think I want to expose myself to your kids, to their judgment?
Jamil Zaki: 40:27 They’re tough critics. They really are.
Alan Alda: 53:02 Well, I sure have enjoyed this conversation. Thanks so much, Jamil.
Jamil Zaki: 53:05 Oh, me as well. It’s been a real pleasure.
Alan Alda: 53:07 Thank you.

Jamil Zaki’s book, “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World” should be on everyone’s reading list this holiday season. If you visit his web site, warforkindness.com, you’ll also find more information about his work at Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. And you can find more “empathy games” and challenges that will help you engage and connect more thoughtfully with others. A good one to test during the holiday is “Challenge #2: How to Spend Kindly.” That might come in handy the next time you’re caught u in the frenzy of a door buster.
That web site again is: warforkindness.com.