How to Exercise Your Empathy Some people are good at putting themselves in another person's shoes. Others may struggle to relate. But psychologist Jamil Zaki argues that empathy isn't a fixed trait. This week, in our final installment of You 2.0, we revisit a favorite episode about how to exercise our empathy muscles.

You 2.0: Empathy Gym

You 2.0: Empathy Gym

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
alicemoi/Getty Images/RooM RF
One hand clasping another hand in a gesture of empathy.
alicemoi/Getty Images/RooM RF

What books are on your summer reading list?

If you're reading mostly nonfiction, consider the benefits of adding a novel to the mix.

"There's a fair amount of evidence now that the more fiction that people read, the more empathetic that they become," says Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki. "Because fiction is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people who are different from us who we might not have a chance to meet otherwise."

Zaki argues that empathy is like a muscle — it can be strengthened with exercise and it can atrophy when idle. On this episode of Hidden Brain, we talk about calibrating our empathy so we can interact with others more mindfully.

"Oftentimes, when we encounter someone who's different from ourselves and has an opinion or a viewpoint maybe that we even abhor, it's easy to just view them as being either obtuse or dishonest or both," says Zaki.

"But that's a mistake. I think empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else's world is just as real as yours."

Additional resources:

The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki

Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis by David Dodell-Feder and Diana I. Tamir

Parochial Empathy Predicts Reduced Altruism and the Endorsement of Passive Harm by Emile G. Bruneau, Mina Cikara, and Rebecca Saxe