Reading Room: Books That Help Us Understand Empathy

Spring 2020

By Richard Barbieri

At the beginning of the 20th century, no one had ever used the word “empathy.” Today, a search on Amazon for “empathy” returns 8,000 books. Their authors include philosophers, psychologists, educators, novelists, think-tank leaders, and parenting gurus, and readers will find merit in many different ways.

Empathy, one of these many books asserts, can affect “health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity,” promote “kindness, prosocial behaviors, and moral courage,” be “an effective antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice, and racism,” and prepare “kids for the global world, and give them a job market boost.”

This isn’t marketing hyperbole. Results-oriented organizations such as the Harvard Business Review and the Association of American Medical Colleges have called empathy “an essential ingredient for leadership success and excellent performance” and an “essential learning objective.”

But this passion for compassion is accompanied by dire warnings of its decline and imminent demise. As psychologist Jamil Zaki quips in his paradoxically titled The War For Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, “Being a psychologist studying empathy today is like being a climatologist studying the polar ice: Each year we discover more about how valuable it is, just as it recedes all around us.” Zaki provides evidence that “empathy has dwindled steadily, especially in the 21st century. The average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75% of people in 1979.” The same view is expressed in UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by parenting adviser Michele Borba, who adds proof: “Teens are now 40% lower in empathy levels than three decades ago … One study showed youth bullying increasing a whopping 52% … and we now see evidence of bullying starting in children as young as 3.”

While both cite technology and social media as contributors to this decline, Zaki probes its causal chain: “The modern world has made kindness harder. We see more people than ever before, but know fewer of them.” Technology exacerbates the problem because “online, the first thing we encounter about a person is often the thing we’d like least about them, such as an ideology we despise … They are enemies before they have a chance to be people.” He concludes, “If you wanted to design a system to break empathy, you could scarcely do better than the society we’ve created.”

If this is so, as the concurrence of two such different writers suggests, we need to ask fundamental questions of our authors: Is empathy as vital as we now judge it to be, and can its decline be reversed?

Response Time

While Zaki, a Stanford professor, asks, “Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?” Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, counters in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, “If we want to be good and caring people, if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy.”

Each presents detailed, powerfully argued, and well-supported arguments, but in the end, there is less of a chasm between them as their declarations might suggest. They agree, for example, that empathy is by its nature narrowly focused, often leading us to expend enormous energy on a small but compelling problem, while ignoring a more catastrophic and far-reaching one. (Bloom is among the many writers who quote both Stalin and Mother Teresa on this point.) Bloom argues that a purely emotional response to suffering can both lead us astray and exhaust us. He states, “It’s only when we escape from empathy and rely instead on the application of rules and principles or a calculation of costs and benefits that we can, to at least some extent, become fair and impartial.” But Zaki clarifies that empathy “actually refers to several different ways we respond to each other. These include identifying what others feel (cognitive empathy), sharing their emotions (emotional empathy), and wishing to improve their experiences (empathic concern).”  Bloom concedes: “Am I against … ‘cognitive empathy’ as well? I couldn’t be. How can you ever make people happy if you have no idea what makes them happy?”

Shakespeare’s King Lear grasped this triad perfectly over 400 years ago when he said, 
“Oh, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.”

Emotional and cognitive empathy is a necessary but insufficient condition, in philosophic terms. Empathetic concern is also needed to build a more just world.

Even given Bloom’s caveats, most of us will likely want to increase empathy among our students, and in the world as a whole. Are there practical ways of doing so? Zaki argues that there are, and provides an extensive range of evidence, from children and college students to reformed white nationalists. He supports study anecdotes and explicitly offers an index assessing which findings about empathy are strongly grounded and which are less so.

Others focus on more detailed strategies for building empathy. Of these, the most compendious is The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, a collection of essays from Greater Good Magazine, from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In 35 short pieces, featuring notable figures such as the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Frans B. M. de Waal, Robert Reich, Steven Pinker, and Michael Pollan—disappointingly, 75% of the pieces are by men—The Compassionate Instinct advises on managing situations from work to marriage, politics to eating. It aims to offer advice on how empathy can, in the words of the American Friends Service Committee, “increase the peace.”

Building Understanding

Turning specifically to the work schools do, many authors not only preach but also practice, developing empathy in children and students. Borba offers parents and teachers strategies to counter the “digital craze [that] is spilling into the real world, altering our kids’ offline attitudes, and creating the most entitled, competitive, self-centered, and individualistic breed on record.” Like The Compassionate Instinct, UnSelfie spreads its net widely, arguing that many approaches—from direct teaching and discussion to reading, theater, and personal encounters with the old, the young, and “the other”—can all build empathy. Borba’s suggested building blocks for empathy include emotional literacy, since if we cannot recognize emotions in others and ourselves, we can hardly resonate with them; perspective-taking and moral imagination, to which she adds the essential skills of self-regulation, collaboration, and the character trait moral courage. Her synthesis is rooted in the work of such predecessors as William Damon, Carol Dweck (a mentor of Zaki’s as well), Jane Elliott, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Alfie Kohn.

Borba also enthusiastically cites Canadian former kindergarten teacher Mary Gordon, whose Roots of Empathy: Changing the World, Child by Child details the curriculum that she developed and which is now used in 14 countries. The core of Gordon’s approach is derived from her classroom background. She provides an intensive and extensive classroom experience, mainly by bringing parents and babies to early childhood and elementary classrooms. By observing the child and questioning the mother, children develop the awarenesses Borba advocates. While Borba offers a sweeping survey of “what works,” Gordon delves deeply into a working system.

The two turn the adage about doing and teaching on its head. Gordon’s work has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama and is widely honored in her native Canada, but her only book ranks 104,000th on Amazon. Borba, on the other hand, has been hired as a spokesperson by Ragu, Mastercard, and Splenda, while UnSelfie, just one of her 22 works, comes in at 5,600th. Each has her role to play in the work of building a more empathetic world, and it may be that each needs the other equally. An ideal strategy would be for the faculty to read Bloom and Zaki, the lower school to implement Gordon’s curriculum, and the community to discuss The Compassionate Instinct and UnSelfie together.
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Richard Barbieri

Richard Barbieri spent 40 years as teacher and administrator in independent schools. He can be reached at [email protected]