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The Kindness Contagion

Research indicates that we are less caring today than we were thirty years ago, leading former President Obama to argue in 2006 that Americans are suffering from an “empathy deficit.” An empathy expert, Dr. Jamil Zaki, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford and the Director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory, has focused his research on understanding how empathy may be encouraged. He is the author of a recent book exploring empathy entitled The War for Kindness. The website supporting the book argues that “empathy is in short supply” and that isolation and tribalism are rampant. For example, while we struggle to understand those who are not like us (that is, from the same “tribe”), we find it easy to hate them.

However, empathy is not a fixed trait that cannot be changed. It is, in fact, a skill that can be strengthened through effort – in the same way, that we can improve our physical strength and fitness. The website describing and promoting the book also includes a remarkable resource. This resource consists of an Excel file listing all the claims in his book plus the published references supporting those claims plus scores indicating how strong the authors consider the evidence for each claim to be (a score of 5 stands for “very strong evidence”). The table below provides an example of claims in the Introduction and Chapter 1 that are evaluated together with their scores.

Table: Some of the Claims in The War For Kindness and the strength of evidence Supporting Them (1 = low and 5 = high).

Table: Some of the Claims in The War For Kindness and the strength of evidence Supporting Them (1 = low and 5 = high).

The Excel file also includes the complete citations for all the references they identified that report research addressing each claim. These claims and the associated references provide a coherent roadmap for the book’s contents. For example, for the first claim in the table that “empathy is related to kindness and prosociality,” sixteen references are listed.

In the table above, one of the claims states that “Empathy is, in part, genetically determined.” Zaki refers to this claim as the “Roddenberry Hypothesis” because Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, including the android Data, who is blind to the feelings of others, is one of the central characters in the series. He also had another character, Deanna Troi, who was extraordinarily empathetic.

Zaki comments that “thankfully, the Roddenberry Hypothesis is wrong.” We may start with limited empathy, but there are “anti-selfishness” therapies that can help us grow a more “muscular” empathy and broaden our empathic concerns to include many more people (plus other creatures). Humans might be 39% kind or 71% kind, or somewhere in between but, Zaki comments, what “matters is not where we begin, but where we can go.”

WellBeing International has been promoting what it refers to as a Feel Better initiative. The initiative is named after a public opinion poll result in which respondents said they “feel better” after doing something positive for the environment. It emphasizes the importance of individual actions (via individual consumer choices or advocacy activities) to support a path to global sustainability. If individuals can also increase global kindness by supporting a “kindness contagion,” then developing a more muscular empathy for others would benefit both the empathic individuals and their communities.

As Zaki has said – “Empathy is not just a precious resource; it is also a renewable one.”

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