Choose Empathy – Practice Makes Perfect

By Shlomo Maital


Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It contrasts with sympathy, which is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”.

   Surely empathy is a fundamental basis of all that is good in society. And it has been, long before moral philosopher (not economist!) Adam Smith wrote about “fellow-feelings” in his 1759 book Theory of Moral Sentiments.

   Well — leave it to the professors to challenge even the most common-sense ideas. Unfortunately I played this silly game myself for decades. Here’s how it works: Strap on your revolver, tie the holster to your thigh, and go looking for the fastest gun in town. Challenge him to a gunfight. If you win you become famous. If you lose, well — in publish or perish nobody dies. You get to try again.

     Take empathy, for instance. What could be bad? Well —   Yale University Professor Paul Bloom’s 2016 book Against Empathy argues: “many agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices.”   Basically, Bloom writes, we feel empathy mainly towards those who are like us, so this is part of the tribalism and identity politics that fracture society today around the world.  This is an utterly wrong-headed definition of empathy, that begs the question.

   I much prefer Jamil Zaki’s position, in his book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. (Crown Books: June 2019). Zaki is head of the Stanford Univ. Social Neuroscience Lab. He echoes former President Barack Obama’s observation that “the US is suffering from an ‘empathy deficit’“. He cites evidence that people today are less caring (about others) than we were 30 years ago.   Based on experiments in his lab, Zaki shows that empathy is not a fixed trait, one we are born with in fixed amounts.   Instead it is a skill, or even a ‘muscle’, that can be strengthened through effort, and through practice. He brings examples, like Washington, D.C. police officers seeking to reduce police violence by changing their culture toward empathy.  

   Zaki told Shankar Vedantam, on the Hidden Brain podcast, “…empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else’s world is just as real as yours.” I wonder, Professor Bloom, how in the world can THAT be a cause of tribalism?

   So, what can you do to strengthen your empathy muscles? Here’s my suggestion. Try the “opposing minds” exercise. Think about a principle you hold strongly. Say – the right of migrants to seek safe haven, health care and education in wealthy nations. (Zaki himself was born and raised in Florida, but his name sounds like he was a child of immigrants). Now, make the case for the precise opposite: Exclude all migrants. Is it possible to empathize even with those whom you may regard as ‘racist’?   Do you weaken – or strengthen – your own belief through such empathy? And if the ‘racists’ did the same, would we perhaps find more common ground, for consensual action?