On the Trail of Kindness

Two new books on empathy explore both its drivers and the reasons it’s on the decline.

By Gary Drevitch, published June 26, 2019 - last reviewed on July 2, 2019

Most of us believe that we are fairly kind: We worry about our loved ones, we try to be there for our friends when they’re suffering, and we donate to charity. And yet when, say, a workplace tormentor is fired, we can experience an intoxicating hit of schadenfreude instead of sympathizing with our colleague’s fate.

Rawpixel[dot]com/Shutterstock
Rawpixel[dot]com/Shutterstock

Human empathy is complex and variable, and our understanding of just how and why it works has shifted over the centuries. Two new books—The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, by Jamil Zaki, a neuroscientist with a strong interest in morality, and Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition by Patricia Churchland, a philosopher who grounds her work in neuroscience—land at similar conclusions about both the traits that lead us to care about others and the forces conspiring to make us stop.

Crown Publishing
Crown Publishing

Zaki, a Stanford psychologist and director of its Social Neuroscience Laboratory, claims that humans are the kindest species on the planet and that our kindness is a highly evolved trait. Darwin wondered if sacrifice for non-kin others violated the theory of natural selection, but Zaki sees “our tendency to help one another, even at a cost to ourselves” as a vital survival skill. He believes Homo sapiens thrived as other human species died out precisely because we evolved to have lower testosterone levels; softer, more emotionally expressive faces; and larger eye whites, all the better to look out for each other, understand each other’s feelings, and work together.

The future of human kindness, however, may be precarious. “If you wanted to design a system to break empathy,” he writes, “you could scarcely do better than the society we’ve created.” The more disengaged we become from others, Zaki believes—the more time we spend online, or in crowded cities filled with strangers with whom we’ll never speak—the less empathic we become: In a meta-analysis by University of Michigan researchers, the average young adult in 2009 showed less empathic concern, or motivation to improve others’ well-being, than 75 percent of young adults in 1979.

“Being a psychologist studying empathy today is like being a climatologist studying polar ice,” Zaki writes. “Each year we discover more about how valuable it is, just as it recedes all around us.” But he remains hopeful. Zaki confirms that empathy is not a fixed trait but a skill we can build over time with intention and effort, citing his own research and others’. Given that fact, he writes, “the direction we take—and our collective fate—depends, in a real way, on what each of us decides to feel.”

He cites compelling examples of compassionate growth in action: In a program called Changing Lives Through Literature, a judge shortened the sentences of Massachusetts convicts if they agreed to join a parolee group that read stories focused on risk, loss, and redemption. After a year, the readers had a 20 percent recidivism rate, compared to 45 percent for similar parolees.

The members of Life After Hate, a group of ex–white supremacists, found that exposure to individuals from groups they once tormented changed their opinions not only about those people but also about themselves. A lack of self-compassion leads to more rigidity, Zaki writes, and conflict and hate limit human imagination. Engaging with others increased self-compassion among the ex-hate-group members, and meeting other people who have changed expanded their imagination about who they could be. In fact, Life After Hate members call each other “formers,” one told Zaki, “because everyone is forming all the time, into someone new.”

Norton Books
Norton Books

Churchland, a professor emerita at the University of California, San Diego, and a MacArthur genius grant recipient, has been called the founder of neurophilosophy. She acknowledges that pinning down conscience is a challenge, since it is subject to both hardwired and situational factors. “It is not like the Earth’s gravity, always pulling us in one direction,” she writes. Neither is it only cognitive, because it contains two interdependent elements—“feelings that urge us in a general direction and judgment that shapes the urge into a specific action.” Our judgment also reflects in some part the standards of the group to which we feel attached.

Given that, she suggests, it’s not surprising that the acts of conscience we tend to hail—David Kaczynski’s alerting the police to the likelihood that his brother, Ted, was the Unabomber or playwright Lilian Hellman’s refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee—demand a difficult choice between loyalty and the law.

Positive acts of conscience may be more understandable, both instinctually and in the lab, than episodes in which people reject the right thing. While functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) does an adequate job of detecting kindness and aggression in individuals at the level of the brain, Churchill writes, scans offer us minimal access to such states as aggression by one social group against another. Combatants in wars and perpetrators of genocides are rarely available for scanning, and it would be unethical to prime virulent racial hate in a laboratory setting. Churchland believes external sources, often communal, can infiltrate individual minds with ideologies that exude boundless confidence in and enthusiasm for simple beliefs that explain away moral reservations, “buy off one’s conscience,” and let loose “the exhilarating instincts of a predator.”

Both authors hope their readers will dedicate themselves to building reserves of empathy and compassion, neither of which can thrive without another vital human trait: humility. “Those who advertise themselves as having superior moral judgment or unique access to moral truth need to be looked at askance,” Churchland writes, citing the Confucian adage, “Humility is the solid foundation for all the virtues.”