Jamil Zaki, PhD, professor of psychology at Stanford University, California, and director of Stanford’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory. He is author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. WarForKindness.com
If you rolled back Earth’s history by about 50,000 or 100,000 years and tried to gauge which creature would come to dominate the planet, you probably wouldn’t have picked humans. Why? We’re medium-sized mammals lacking great speed, massive strength and sharp fangs.
The reason we succeeded: We mastered working together—and we managed that not only because we learned to understand what other people were saying…but because we developed an astonishing ability to understand what other people were feeling. In short, we learned empathy.
The benefits of empathy are well-documented and impressive…
Empathic people have happier, deeper relationships, according to a 2020 study by researchers at Australia’s University of New England.
They excel in their professions, report several studies, including one by a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Their peers view them as natural leaders, according to a study by researchers at The College of William and Mary’s Mason School of Business and Virginia Commonwealth University. When empathic people are promoted to leadership positions, they’re considered more effective than their less empathic peers and the performance of the people who work directly for them improves, according to a study by researchers at Texas A&M University in 2018. A stunning 90% of employees agree that they would be more loyal to an empathic employer, and 81% say they would work longer hours, according to a survey by benefits administration technology company Businessolver…while 58% of employees report having left a job because a boss lacked empathy, according to a 2021 survey by EY Consulting.
Empathic people experience lower levels of depression. This last finding might seem counterintuitive—empathy can cause us to suffer due to other people’s struggles, so shouldn’t it increase rates of depression? It turns out that feeling empathy also encourages us to do things for other people, and doing things for others is a tremendously powerful mood booster—it’s even more powerful than doing things for ourselves.
Even people who know about the power of empathy often fail to put that power to proper use. Reason: Many aren’t even aware that their level of empathy is largely within their control—research led by a psychologist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests that only around 30% of an individual’s level of empathy stems from genetics.
Men, in particular, often believe that they’re at an empathy disadvantage compared with women. But while women routinely outscore men on tests of “empathic accuracy”—the ability to understand what other people are feeling and thinking—researchers have discovered that men can completely close this empathy gender gap when motivated to do so. Examples: One study conducted at University of Oregon found that men’s empathy scores essentially matched women’s when there was a financial reward for performing well on the test…and researchers at University of Bath in the UK found that heterosexual men became just as empathic as women when informed that women like empathic guys.
Below are proven strategies for becoming more empathic—you can skip any that don’t feel comfortable for you…
Schedule a brief daily dose of empathy. Devoting just a few minutes each day to caring about others will improve your empathy skills more than making the occasional grand gesture. Grand gestures are memorable…but when it comes to improving empathy, what matters most is making it a regular habit.
What to do: Block out “empathy time” in your daily schedule—five to 10 minutes each day is sufficient. If you can think of a specific way to help someone during these minutes, great. If not, use this time to reach out to someone who is facing challenges and ask how he/she is doing. Avoid the trap of thinking, If I was in that person’s shoes, I’d be feeling X, so he/she likely is feeling X. The same shoes can feel very different to different people. Instead, ask this person how he is doing…add “I’m here if you need me”…then listen closely to what he says.
Convince other people that they can increase their empathy. When one person tries to convince another of something, the first person she convinces often is herself. Example: When a group of students at Stanford University were asked to write letters to another group of students expressing confidence that empathy is a skill that can be learned, the letter writers became better at understanding other people’s emotions. This improved ability persisted for months after the exercise.
What to do: Have conversations or write e-mails expressing to others a belief that we can learn to better understand each other’s feelings. It likely will boost your own empathy skills.
Turn up the volume of empathy already around you. Most people strive to do whatever they believe is normal in their community—if their neighbors keep their lawns well-tended, they likely will do so as well. But when it comes to things less obvious than lawn care, we’re not very good at determining what is normal. This shortcoming can steer us away from empathy—we notice the brash, boorish behavior of the few but overlook the responsible behavior of the many. Examples: We’re more likely to remember the one driver who cut us off than the hundreds who drove responsibly.
What to do: Spread the word about the empathy that already exists—the more you and everyone notices it, the more you and everyone else will start to copy it, perhaps without even realizing that you’re doing so. Start conversations lauding caring, empathic behavior you are aware of from others in your groups or neighborhood. Leave out the names of the people involved, if necessary, to avoid causing embarrassment or betraying confidences. Sharing these stories increases the odds that other group members will share similar stories…and hearing those stories likely will encourage everyone involved to view empathy as a social norm worth following.
Reframe outsiders as “insiders.” We feel more empathy for people we consider members of our group than we do for outsiders—humans are tribal by nature. But studies have found that who we see as a member of “our group” is more flexible than we tend to realize. Example: In one British study, researchers discovered that after asking fans of the soccer team Manchester United to write essays about what that team meant to them, only 70% of the essay writers then stopped to help an injured jogger wearing a Liverpool jersey, Manchester’s rival. But if those fans instead wrote essays about what the sport of soccer meant to them, nearly 90% stopped.
What to do: View yourself as a member of broad groups that include virtually everyone you’re likely to encounter. Example: You’re a human being, an American, a resident of your state, not just a member of a political party.
Read fiction. York University psychologist Raymond Mar, PhD, found that reading novels builds empathy. Nonfiction does not appear to provide the same benefits. Example: One study by a researcher at Erasmus University found that people who read a novel featuring a character who suffered from depression were more likely to donate money to a nonprofit that supported depression research than were people who read scientific writing about depression. Reading fiction is empathy’s gateway drug—it encourages us to understand what the characters in the novels are feeling.
What to do: Read novels regularly—the empathy benefits of reading a single novel are modest but developing a fiction-reading habit can have a significant impact.