The director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory asserts that human empathy and kindness can be developed skills.
With alarming evidence of our society’s rapidly diminishing empathy, Zaki (Psychology/Stanford Univ.) draws on decades of clinical research, along with experiments conducted at his lab, to consider the forces that impact our modern condition. “The news is not good,” he writes. “Empathy has dwindled steadily especially in the twenty-first century. The average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75 percent of the people in 1979.” The author goes on to recount examples of how individuals and groups have worked toward reversing this trend. These include a former white supremacist who, after becoming a father, found new meaning in his life, enabling him to reverse his negative and often violent instincts. Along with a group of like-minded colleagues, he formed a nonprofit support group called Life After Hate, which “works to extract people from the dark place he once inhabited.” Similarly, the alternative sentencing program Changing Lives Through Literature helps convicts become more empathetic by expanding their self-awareness through reading about fictional characters who have struggled through their own challenging issues. Zaki further considers degrees of empathy, especially regarding health care workers and other caretakers, offering examples of how to work effectively without burning out from the pressure of needing to fix all problems. He also reviews our quickly evolving technological advances, highlighting the many opportunities where technology can serve to enhance empathy. While Zaki’s many examples offer encouragement that change is possible, the book could have further benefited by a more substantive action plan and a resource list. “In five years, or one, the world could be a meaner place or a kinder one. Our social fabric could further tear or start to mend,” writes the author, so “…the direction we take—and our collective fate—depends, in a real way, on what each of us decides to feel.”
An earnest and well-researched call to action and an urgent message that will hopefully expand in Zaki’s future work.