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The War For Kindness

Building Empathy in a Fractured World

By Jamil Zaki
13-minute read
Audio available
The War For Kindness by Jamil Zaki

It can often seem like tribalism and cruelty have our modern world in a vice-grip. But The War for Kindness (2019) shows us that not all hope is lost: together, we can fight the trend toward isolation and hatred through the incredible power of empathy. 

  • Psychology buffs who want to delve deeper into the science of empathy
  • Caregivers dealing with burnout
  • Anyone having trouble empathizing with those who have opposing views

Jamil Zaki is a professor of psychology and has been the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab since 2012. His research focuses on empathy and social cognition. The War for Kindness is his first book.

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The War For Kindness

Building Empathy in a Fractured World

By Jamil Zaki
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The War For Kindness by Jamil Zaki
Synopsis

It can often seem like tribalism and cruelty have our modern world in a vice-grip. But The War for Kindness (2019) shows us that not all hope is lost: together, we can fight the trend toward isolation and hatred through the incredible power of empathy. 

Key idea 1 of 8

It’s possible to become more empathetic just by believing that you can.

I feel your pain. For many people, this sentence embodies empathy. But of course, empathy is much more complicated. When we empathize with another person, we might respond to them in a number of different ways. This could mean identifying their feelings, sharing their emotions, or wishing to improve their condition. So are you born empathetic, or is empathy something you can cultivate? 

The key message here is: It’s possible to become more empathetic just by believing that you can.

Have you ever heard someone say something like “once a cheater, always a cheater”? Statements like this are indicative of a belief in psychological fixism, the argument that a person’s character is unchanging.

There’s just one problem with psychological fixism – it’s not backed up by science.

Despite what the platitudes suggest, the brain is always changing. Learning to play an instrument, for example, causes parts of your brain to grow. Meanwhile, other parts of your brain can shrink as a result of depression or chronic stress.

So what’s the alternative to fixism? That would be psychological mobilism. This theory acknowledges that genetics do play a role in defining some of our characteristics. However, we don’t just have a set point in traits like intelligence or empathy. Instead, each of us has a range we can achieve within each trait.

Throughout our lives, we move to the higher or lower end of our empathetic range, starting in childhood. Children of empathetic parents show greater generosity, concern for strangers, and heightened ability to understand other people’s emotions. And sadly, children who experience severe lack of kindness show empathetic deficits similar to those found in psychopaths. 

Not only does the research support mobilism, but there’s another huge upside. Mobilists are statistically more empathetic than fixists, and simply converting to mobilism can immediately boost your level of empathy.

In one study, the author and two colleagues presented a group of participants with two magazine articles on empathy. One article was written from a fixist perspective, and the other from a mobilist. No matter which article they read, participants were convinced it was factual. Everyone had successfully been converted to either a “new fixist” or a “new mobilist.”

What were the consequences when it came to empathy? New fixists didn’t empathize with outsiders – only with people who looked like them. New mobilists, though, empathized with everyone.

You know what that means? If this blink has turned you into a mobilist, you might already be more empathetic!

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