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Online Education Blog #3

Become Whom You Teach

By Shlomo Maital & Maya Taya Arie

   Nietzsche once wrote, insightfully, “Become who you are”. I’d like to adapt that slightly: For online educators – Become whom you teach.

My granddaughter Maya asks: “Try to imagine that you are a student, what tools would you find most effective when learning virtually?”

  Maya, that is a super question. Perhaps the most basic of all.

As a management educator, one of the hardest things I teach is to become customer-centric. I used to do an exercise with my managers: Please, stand up and speak about your product, as if you were a customer. Your product disappears, your business is broke. What do your customers miss most?

   Sounds simple? But most managers had a very hard time, especially senior ones, who had not seen or heard a customer in years.

   Same goes for us educators, especially at the college level. Take me, for instance. I’ve been teaching in college for well over 50 years. There are two generations between me and my students. Do I really understand them, their needs, their thinking, their preferences? And do I really try to?

   Some 23 years ago, Harvard Business School Professor Dorothy Leonard, along with Jeffrey Rayport, wrote a fine article, “Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design”.*  Her main point: You can ask customers what they want. Mostly they do not know. Or, you can observe them and empathize with them, BECOME them. And then when you are in their shoes and skin, figure out their needs.

   So, Maya — Online education is triply quadruply hard, because I do not have students in front of me, face to face. But I do have them on screen, with ‘chat’… So, I can think hard, who ARE these people, what do they want and need, what interests them, what do they want to learn? NOT – what do I know and have to teach them? And how are they responding?

And I do know this – After years of teaching economics and crunching numbers, the most effective teaching tool is – stories. Stories! Real people, real events, real conflict, real decisions. So this will be the subject of our  next blog – Teaching online, by the effective use of stories.

  • Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1997.



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?  



The Root of Cruelty & Violence: Low Empathy

By Shlomo Maital

   At times, it just does not pay to watch the news or read the newspaper. The boundaries of human violence and cruelty to fellow humans keep getting pushed to more and more outrageous levels.  

     But why?   What is the root of this cruelty and violence?   Our Bible (Old Testament) says explicitly, “I [God] dwell within each of you”.   How can we harm other human beings in any way, when God himself resides in every human being?

       I found an answer in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic.[1] There is a part of our brain that is active when we empathize with others. Empathy means “I feel precisely as you feel”, as opposed to sympathy, which means “I am sorry you are feeling badly”.   If you have empathy for others, you cannot harm them, because when you do, you physically harm yourself and feel pain.

       Why have the empathy centers of our brains become clogged and decayed? I don’t know. It is deeply painful, for instance, when my own country Israel, which I love deeply, forcibly expels African migrants, when the Jewish people have suffered so much from such expulsions and worse. The empathy centers of Israeli political leaders have atrophied.

     What is the solution?   Let each of us look inward, deeply, and examine our own empathy centers. Here below is a short version of an EQ (empathy quotient) test. [2]  EQ I think is far more important for humanity than IQ. Indeed, some people with astronomical IQ have below-zero EQ. Alas. How do you score on EQ? Has our IQ gotten out of synch with our EQ?

       Perhaps the endlessly repeated terrifying images of violence have dulled our EQ and made it atrophy. Let each of us rebuild our empathy.   In our own lives, and in our own small ways, let us regain empathy toward others. At least, it’s a start.

  1. I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation.
  2. I really enjoy caring for other people.
  3. In a conversation, I tend to focus on my own thoughts rather than on what my listener might be thinking.
  4. I find it easy to put myself in somebody else’s shoes.
  5. I am good at predicting how someone will feel.
  6. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable.
  7. Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
  8. When I talk to people, I tend to talk about their experiences rather than my own.
  9. I get upset if I see people suffering on news programs.
  10. Friends usually talk to me about their problems as they say that I am very understanding.

[1] National Geographic. “Anatomy of Empathy”. Jan. 2018, pp. 128-131.

[2] S Baron-Cohen, S Wheelwright. The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation Of Adults With Asperger Syndrome Or High Functioning Autism, And Normal Sex Differences. 34(2): J Autism Dev Disord 163-75. 2004.

Feeling Empathy for Others: It’s Not Enough!

By Shlomo  Maital


   In a recent blog, I recounted NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof’s story about his high school chum, Kevin, who died recently after sinking into poverty and despair:

   In his Op-Ed piece,  Nicholas Kristof mourns the death of his school chum Kevin Green. They grew up together in Yamhill, Oregon, and ran cross-country together.  Kevin lost a good job, went on welfare, got divorced, became obese, lived on food stamps, got diabetes, and died at age 54.  Tea Party Republicans say he “had it easy because he got government benefits without doing anything”.  Kristof notes that Kevin collected cans and bottles by the roadside, to make $20 a day for subsistence.  Easy?  Want to trade places?  Did Republican wealth “trickle down” to Kevin and help him get a good job?  Not a chance.

    Kristof, in a later column, reports that he got immense flack from readers for this column.  They said, it was Kevin’s own fault. He brought it on himself.   Those hard-hearted readers lacked empathy, he notes. 

    So do our leaders. It’s no wonder. Did you know that half of all members of the U.S.  Congress (House and Senate) are millionaires?  How can they feel our pain, our middle-class pain? 

     We need leaders with empathy.    Empathy – feeling the pain of others – is built-in to our physiology.  We have ‘mirror neurons’ that enable us to feel what our counterpart is feeling at a given moment, not just pain, but joy, embarrassment, grief, happiness.  But over time, we can easily turn off those empathy neurons, and rationalize them away.

    But even strong feelings of empathy, I feel, is not enough.  I found David Brooks’ NYT column, written over three years ago, in Sept. 2011:

    Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.   There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. 

   In other words:  It’s not enough to feel empathy toward others.  You have to ACT on your feelings and do something about it, even something small and symbolic, at least once in a while, so that your empathy muscles do not wither.

     In our recent book Cracking the Creativity Code, we list 10 brain exercises to develop creativity.  The first of the 10, and most important, is “Act, Don’t Gripe”.    If you see something wrong, injustice,  try to fix it, take action, at least once in a while.  I know a friend, who always, as a matter of principle, gives small change to homeless and those who beg on the streets, even ones who are clearly running a scam. 

    I wish we had political leaders who were middle class working people.   We really don’t.  Until we do, it’s up to us.   Sharpen your feelings toward others.  Develop your empathy.  But don’t leave it at that.  Try to act on it.   If more people did that, maybe we wouldn’t even need to bother with those millionaires in Congress.

How We Humans Can Learn from Chimpanzees

By Shlomo Maital


   BBC World Service’s Science Hour program is outstanding. On March 30, one of the topics was animal behavior. It was recalled how Jane Goodall saw chimps use twigs to get ants from inside anthills, and proved that animals know how to use tools. Then broadcaster Adam Hart asked, do animals think like humans? Do they have moral principles?

     The fascinating research by Emory University researcher Frans De Wall, a Dutch primatologist, was mentioned.  He studies whether animals empathize, i.e. understand and sympathize with other animals? They do indeed. Chimpanzees go over to chimps who lost a fight, and put an arm around them to comfort them. Yawn contagion is a predictor of empathy (if someone else yawns, causing you too to yawn, you are empathic). Chimps who saw videos of yawning chimps were likely to yawn themselves if they knew the chimp involved, i.e. had a reason for empathy.  

     But do animals have a sense of equality and fairness? De Wall reports:  “We did experiments with capuchin monkeys.  They are very sensitive to who gets what.  In our experiments we had 2 monkeys side by side. We gave them pebbles and they had to give them back to us, to get a reward. If both got the same reward, they perform this task 25 times in a row without fail. But If one gets a grape, another gets some cucumber, and grapes are far better rewards, the chimp who gets cucumber gets upset, protests, throws away the food (similar to human reactions), and goes into protest mode, or strike.  No more returning pebbles!”

     With The Economist’s cover story on Crony Capitalism, new attention is being focused on the obscene salaries capitalist managers pay themselves, especially those in banks, insurance companies, hedge funds and financial services.   The animal studies reveal a key point. It is part of our evolutionary DNA that societies should be fair. Fair societies are cohesive, and thus survive better and longer than selfish unequal ones. This began with primates, chimps and apes, and has transferred to human society too.   Crony unfair unequal capitalism, where a handful rip off the majority of working people, will simply not survive. One way or another, the people will find a way to put a stop to it, just like De Wall’s chimps.

   Check out De Wall’s books: Our Inner Ape, and Chimp Politics. In many ways, chimp society is more advanced than our own human society in the age of rip-off capitalism.

 Why (and How) We Truly Care About Others – the Amazing Mirror Neurons

By Shlomo  Maital

          mirror neurons

       One day, an Italian neurophysiologist named Giacomo Rizzolatti, Parma University,  will win the Nobel Prize for his amazing discovery of mirror neurons.

  Here is what he found, by accident, like so many great discoveries, and why it is important.

   Rizzolatti and colleagues were studying the nerve cells that controlled hand movements and seizing of objects. 

    The research was very monotonous, as it required the researchers to follow neuron patterns in the brains of macaque monkeys, who were holding peanuts and bringing them to their mouths.  As the monkeys moved their hands, the nerve cells in their brains that controlled the movement fired electrical impulses, which could be seen in the electroencephalogram printout. 

     At one point, one of the researchers picked up a peanut.  He was amazed to see that the same neurons activated in the monkey’s brain, when the monkey itself picked up the peanut, were fired when the monkey saw someone ELSE pick up a peanut.  It was an astonishing finding. How could a neuron, responsible for hand movements, fire when the hand did not move, but someone else’s hand moved? 

   The researchers realized they had stumbled on a revolutionary finding.  The brain possesses unique cells that respond to an animal’s own movements, but also to the SAME movement when performed by other animals.  How come the monkey’s own hand did not move, when the neuron fired? Because other neurons inhibited motor ‘imitation’.  Mirror cells only SENSE the motion, they do not initiate the same motion.

    Humans too have mirror cells, we now know.  This enables us to feel empathy, and to be social animals, to cooperate, to help, to be a team member.  Probably, those mirror cells were created by evolution – humans possessing them were better equipped to survive and procreate than those who lacked them.  And soon, all humans had them.

    Some neurophysiologists deny there are such things as mirror cells. But there are, and they do exist.  They explain much of our human-ness. 

    Some selfish people ignore what their mirror cells tell them; they broadcast very quietly.  But some people increase their sensitivity to the ‘firing’ of mirror cells and become exceedingly caring empathic people.   And since empathy is a key part of innovation, my theory is that great innovators have heightened sensitivity to what their mirror cells tell them about what other people feel and need.

    Kudos, handshakes, to Rizzolatti and the other researchers who refused to say, nuts! to a remarkable, perhaps impossible, observation.  They deserve the Nobel.   


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital