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: how to exercise our empathetic muscles. It's the first episode in our You 2.0 summer series.
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You 2.0: The Empathy Gym

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You 2.0: The Empathy Gym

You 2.0: The Empathy Gym

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN from NPR. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In May 2007, an artist living in Chicago moved into a new place. It was a small room with white walls. The interior design was minimalist. There was a bed, a desk, a computer, a lamp and a paintball gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Affixed to the gun was a webcam. It livestreamed the room to the internet. Anyone could look in, and anyone could take control of the gun, aim and fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAINTBALL GUN FIRING)

VEDANTAM: At all hours of the day and night, the paintball gun would spring to life and begin shooting yellow pellets into the room. Some hit the walls or the furniture. Some hit the artist.

WAFAA BILAL: I was shot at 70,000 time, and I received 80 million hits on the internet from 128 countries.

VEDANTAM: Wafaa Bilal spent one whole month in the room, targeted tens of thousands of times by random strangers around the world. Why would he choose to do this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Wafaa was born and raised in Iraq. He came to the U.S. in the early '90s.

BILAL: I live this duality of living in two places. One is a comfort zone of United State (ph) and the other one is the conflict zone in Iraq where my family, friends live.

VEDANTAM: In 2004, Wafaa says one of his brothers was killed in an airstrike.

BILAL: One of my brother, Haji, was killed in air-to-ground missile. And I didn't know what to do.

VEDANTAM: Wafaa is a performance artist, and he wanted to engage others in the conversation that was running through his mind. Three years after his brother's death, he got an idea.

BILAL: In January of 2007, I was watching TV. And I was watching an interview with an American soldier.

VEDANTAM: Sitting in the United States, the soldier directed drones to fire missiles thousands of miles away in the Iraqi desert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BILAL: I was shocked how the soldier completely disconnected physically and emotionally from what happened on the ground of - in Iraq.

VEDANTAM: At the time, Wafaa was living in Chicago. He came up with a proposal and presented it to a gallery.

BILAL: And I said, I want to lock myself in the gallery space for 30 days. And I can build a robot connected to the internet, and the robot shoots paintball. And viewers online could direct that gun and shoot at me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILAL: And there you go. That's another shot. Let's see - this one from - it says from Milwaukee. You can see here...

VEDANTAM: The idea was to turn ordinary people into drone operators who could target someone far away - except, in this case, people would not be following orders. They would have a choice about whether to shoot. And you could see the human being on the other end. Wafaa's suffering would be visible.

BILAL: When you are in this - the room, you see the sheer destruction. But if you are online, it become like a video game. And that's another thing that's - I wanted to connect with people that there is real consequences to these actions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILAL: It's day 16. My body is just getting weak by the day. I thought I'd felt better...

VEDANTAM: As the days went by, Wafaa started to feel crushed by the experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILAL: It's late night. Feel extremely tired. But I'm afraid to go to bed.

VEDANTAM: In some ways, Wafaa was attempting to do what civil disobedience movements around the world have done. He was deliberately putting himself in harm's way in order to draw attention to a problem and effect change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILAL: I have United State. I have Denmark. I have Ireland. I have the U.K. I have France again, Canada. So it's not one place. It is almost global shooting. And I don't know.

Somebody said my entire nation living like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Why did strangers who knew nothing about Wafaa take it upon themselves to hurt him? Do technology and modern life and the anonymity they offer make us less caring as human beings? On today's show, building empathy in a connected and confrontational world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Think deeply.

VEDANTAM: ...We kick off our annual summer series, You 2.0.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Authenticity is contagious.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Laughter) I have been dragged into this all the way kicking and screaming.

VEDANTAM: Ideas and advice about how you can respond to life's chaos...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Just do it. Just check to my inbox. Just check, just check, just check to my phone real quick.

VEDANTAM: ...With wisdom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: We begin the series with an exploration of the power and the costs of empathy.

JAMIL ZAKI: By putting ourselves into the story of people who on the surface appear different from us, we can recognize our common humanity with them. And that can trigger empathy in a really natural way.

VEDANTAM: Jamil Zaki is a psychologist at Stanford University. He's the author of the book "The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World." Jamil, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

ZAKI: Thanks for having me.

VEDANTAM: You have a very powerful story about how you came to be interested in the subject of empathy. Tell me about your parents, where they are from, how they met, what they went through and what you learned from the experience.

ZAKI: So it turns out that in the early 1970s, Washington State University in Pullman had a program where they granted full scholarships for graduate studies to students from the world's poorest nations. My mother received the scholarship from Peru. And my father did not receive a scholarship but nonetheless came to Washington state from Pakistan. So they traveled from Lima and Lahore, these two massive cities, to the sleepy town of Pullman, where they fell in love.

When I think about my parents, I think the biggest thing that they had in common was their sense of foreignness in the U.S. They sort of took comfort in each other in a place that neither of them understood. But as they grew more comfortable with the U.S. and were acclimated to it, they grew less comfortable with each other. And they divorced. They started splitting up when I was 8 but didn't finish until I was 12. And theirs was a long and acrimonious split.

And I am their only child, and so a lot of my childhood was spent kind of bouncing around between their houses. And it really felt like I was bouncing between parallel universes because their priorities and values and fears are really as far apart as their hometowns. So I would often feel confused. You know, as a small child, I would try to, when I was with my mom, figure out the rules that governed her heart and mind and make them true for myself. But then, when I would go to my dad's house, those same rules would stop working. And it was just very confusing.

And it felt, I think, to all three of us like I would really have to choose one of my parents and give up on really knowing the other. But I knew that I had to try for all of our sake. So I did, and I kind of kept working at it and eventually got better, learned to tune myself to my parents' different frequencies. And that kind of saved me as a kid. I think empathy saved me - not because it's easy. It was work. I always think of my parents' divorce as an empathy gym for me that forced me to work out my ability to care about and understand other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: And you, as you said, describe this as an empathy gym. Were there times when you failed to show them empathy? I mean, I must imagine that as a small child, it must've been very difficult in many ways to comprehend what was happening and why these two adults were fighting over you and each was demanding that you see things from their point of view.

ZAKI: Oh, absolutely. I mean, one of the big realizations for me as a kid was realizing that both of them were in pain. I think, as a child, it's very easy to focus on your own perspective and what you're going through and to blame others, especially adults. I think when I realized that my parents were both struggling just like I was, it actually made me feel kinship towards them and made it easier to understand that I could connect with both of them in fact because what we were going through wasn't that different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Talk a little bit about the benefits of empathy. There's been a lot of work that looks at what happens when people receive empathy from their partners, for example, or from their doctors.

ZAKI: Oh, yeah. I mean, in many cases, empathy benefits all parties involved. So for instance, patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care but are also more likely to follow doctors' recommendations, which is important for things like preventative care. And spouses of empathic partners are happier in their marriages.

But one thing that I think people don't realize as much is that people who experience empathy for others also benefit. It's not just receiving it, but giving it helps us too. So people who are relatively high in empathy, for instance, are less likely to become depressed. Feeling empathy for others reduces our stress. And adolescents who are able to pick out other people's emotions accurately are better adjusted during middle school.

VEDANTAM: Now, parents everywhere recognize the value of empathy. We have courses and classes that try and teach children empathy. I came by this clip on "Sesame Street" featuring the actor Mark Ruffalo and the character Murray. Take a listen to the clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MARK RUFFALO: (As himself) Murray.

JOEY MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) What?

RUFFALO: (As himself) Did I tell you about that time when I lost my favorite teddy bear?

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) Oh, no.

RUFFALO: (As himself) It was...

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) Oh, that's very sad. Did you love that teddy bear?

RUFFALO: (As himself) I loved that teddy bear.

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) Oh, I can imagine exactly how you feel. It's a really sad feeling. It makes me want to cry like this.

RUFFALO: (As himself) It was sad. It was so sad. But you know what?

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) What?

RUFFALO: (As himself) You know what empathy is.

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) I do?

RUFFALO: (As himself) That was empathy.

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) What?

RUFFALO: (As himself) You could understand how I was feeling, exactly how I was feeling, and understood it. That's empathy.

MAZZARINO: (As Murray Monster) I get it now.

VEDANTAM: Jamil, you've used a similar kind of scenario to explain empathy. Someone's talking with a friend, the friend gets a phone call - walk me through the rest of that scenario and the three components that you've identified that make up empathy.

ZAKI: Yeah. So, again, imagine that you're sitting with a friend having lunch, and they receive a phone call, and whatever the person on the other side of the line says makes them visibly upset. You don't know what's wrong, but your friend starts to cry. And it's obvious that something is wrong. Well, as you see this, a bunch of things might happen inside you.

First, you might become upset yourself, sort of vicariously catching their feeling. That's what psychologists often call emotional empathy. You might also try to figure out what's wrong, what they're feeling and why. That's what we call cognitive empathy. And if you're a good friend, at least, you probably will feel concern for what they're going through and a desire for their well-being to improve. That's what psychologists call empathic concern or compassion. And even though these pieces of empathy sometimes go together, they also split apart in interesting ways.

So, for instance, different brain systems support emotional and cognitive empathy and empathic concern. And different groups of people struggle with different flavors of empathy. People with autism spectrum disorders, for instance, struggle sometimes to understand others, their cognitive empathy, but don't struggle as much to share other people's emotions or care about what other people feel. Individuals with psychopathy have the opposite profile. They're often perfectly able to understand what other people feel, but they don't share those emotions.

VEDANTAM: That's fascinating. It's almost like these are different muscle groups, and you need all the muscle groups to be functioning to, in some ways, actualize your full capacity for empathy.

ZAKI: I love that analogy. Yeah. That's a perfect way of putting it.

VEDANTAM: So at the same time that parents and books and motivational speakers and faith traditions cite the value of empathy, there is also some evidence that empathy might be changing over time and not necessarily in a good way. You cite research that compares the average level of empathy in 2009 to the average in 1979.

ZAKI: Yeah. So this is work by Sara Konrath and her colleagues using the most sort of famous and well-known scale to measure empathy, which is just a questionnaire. In this questionnaire, people see a number of statements, and they're asked how much they agree with that statement from one, not at all, to five, extremely. So a sample statement might be I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than myself or I try to look at everyone's side of a disagreement before I make a decision. So a series of questions like that give you a sort of empathy score, again, from one to five.

People have taken this questionnaire over several decades. And if you compare their scores over time, they've been dwindling or eroding. And what's more troubling is that a lot of this decline happened pretty recently, sort of since the turn of the 21st century.

VEDANTAM: Let's talk about some of the reasons this might be happening. You offer various theories in the book. Among people 18 to 34, for example, 10 times as many people live alone today as did in 1950. You say that more than half of all residents in Paris and Stockholm live alone. In some parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles, that number tops 90%. Is there a link between going solo and the amount of empathy we feel for others?

ZAKI: It's hard to say, you know, and I do want to be clear that in looking at any demographic trends over time and trying to link them to empathy decline, we're necessarily speculating, right? There's no way to run an experiment where you have history occur multiple times and fiddle with different pieces of it to see what causes a decline in empathy. But certainly, you know, you can point to big shifts in the way that people live and one of them is that we're becoming more urban and more solitary. And when we interact with people, it's often in more transactional ways, right? Sort of some of the regular rituals that used to bring us into contact with other people often are giving way to more solitary pursuits.

So there's some evidence, for instance, that anonymous interactions do not favor empathy. So I don't know - there's not data specifically on solitary living but to the extent that living in, you know, a giant city but by yourself where most of the people who you see are total strangers, there's some evidence that suggests that perhaps that might have an effect on our empathy.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, one of the other places where anonymity rules is the internet. And when you look at some of the changes that have unfolded and the timetable of those changes, they do coincide, at least correlationally, with the rise of internet technologies. And I'm wondering is there reason to imagine that there's a connection between these two things, that the connections we have with one another online and on Twitter or social media where we often don't know whom we are communicating with or who's listening or who's not listening, could this in some ways be behind this decline in empathy?

ZAKI: It certainly is possible. You know, I think that the internet and social media - I don't think of them as inherently antisocial. In a way, you can think of the internet as humanity's greatest empathic opportunity ever, right? We have the chance to connect with people around the world at any time on their own terms and respond with compassion. I mean, I think if you go back and read Wired, you know, 10 or 15 years ago, people were waxing poetic about the way that the internet could bring us all together into a global community. I think in some obvious ways that hasn't always occurred.

And I think that has to do in part with some of the ways that we tend to use the internet that might not be empathy positive. So, for instance, oftentimes online, we don't have a chance to see each other's faces and voices in sort of real-time interactions, the kind of richness that we have when we hang out offline. Instead, we see avatars and strings of text, and those might not be great triggers for empathy.

There's a great study by Juliana Schroeder and her colleagues where they had people describe their political opinions sort of in an audio recording. They then had a separate group of people listen to those audio recordings or read a transcript of them. And what they found was that people were more likely to dehumanize the person whose opinion they were reading about if they were only reading it whereas if they were hearing the person's voice, they were less likely to dehumanize that individual, all right? So it's almost as though we're leaving behind when we go online some of the cues that allow us to detect each other's real humanity.

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VEDANTAM: And there's a deep irony there, isn't there, Jamil? I mean, when we live in these big cities, we're living cheek by jowl with lots of other people, but in some ways, we're not connecting with them. And the same goes with the internet. We have the capacity to connect with large numbers of other people, but we're connecting in often the superficial way instead of this deeper way.

ZAKI: It is ironic, isn't it? I mean, we - in cities, for instance, we see more people than we ever did in human history, but we know fewer of them. And it almost is as though our interactions sort of favor a dehumanized perspective on each other. I mean, I know when I'm sort of stuck in traffic or trying to make my way down a crowded block in Manhattan, people become not people but obstacles for me on my way. And I think that that's sort of the way that it can often feel in modern contexts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When we come back - more on the signs of empathy and why being empathetic can sometimes be bad for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Jamil Zaki is the author of "The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World." He conducts research on empathy at Stanford University. Jamil, people who have been through terrible suffering can respond in different ways. Some people turn inward to avoid future pain while others turn outward. They show empathy for the suffering of other people. I feel like I've seen research studies that show both these things. Can you talk about these studies and why people might go in one direction or another after they experience trauma?

ZAKI: Yeah. You know, I think that we often think of trauma, you know, sort of things like being through a war or being assaulted or suffering a terrible injury as things that, again, as you put it nicely, sort of draw us into each other. Or even that trauma might perpetuate itself. We often hear about cycles of violence or the idea that hurt people hurt people. And that's certainly true in some cases.

But there is a lot of research that's actually much more hopeful on what psychologists call altruism born of suffering. This is the idea that sometimes when we've gone through great pain, that actually sort of opens us up to caring more about other people and their suffering. So there are all sorts of examples of that as well. So, for instance, people who have suffered from addiction often change their lives and become addiction counselors. People who've been assaulted often change their lives and become assault counselors sort of because they resonate with the frequency of other people's suffering more acutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAKI: Psychologists don't really know that much about sort of what causes people when they experience suffering to go in one direction or another. But one important factor that they have identified is the support that we receive from other people. So if after a trauma an individual is able to find a community of others who support them, well, then they're more likely to recover from their own trauma. And they might also be more likely to turn around and provide that support to others.

VEDANTAM: I'm thinking about research that Michael Wohl and Nyla Branscombe and others have done looking at how, when you remind people of past trauma, as you remind Americans, for example, of the 9/11 attacks, Americans become more willing to endorse or tolerate harsh interrogation techniques in the fight against terrorism. And in some ways at one level, this seems very intuitive, that you feel like you've been through something bad and I remind you of the bad thing you've been through, and there's a part of you that says, I don't want that bad thing to happen again. And that increases my willingness to permit actions or behaviors that I might otherwise say hang on a second. This is going to cause harm to other people.

ZAKI: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, I think that it cuts both ways, right? I mean, I think reminding people of a collective trauma, for instance, can make them more weary of outsiders and sort of more, as you say, willing to even endorse violence or aggression towards outsiders. But thinking of a common threat is also one way to bring people within a group closer together. I remember after 9/11 the way that Americans really felt like we were all one because we were facing this really deep trauma together. And likewise, there's all sorts of evidence that when people feel that they have a common threat that they're facing, they band together.

VEDANTAM: So it's really interesting. What you're really pointing out is that empathy, in some ways, has this double-edged sword quality to it, which is, on the one hand, it's prompting us to be outward looking, but it's also driven in some ways by factors about who's in our in-group and who is not in our in-group. The psychologist Paul Bloom, who wrote the book "Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion," he argues that empathy tends to be parochial, and it tends to be biased, and that's why when we ask people to be empathic, we're really inviting them to be prejudiced. Is that true?

ZAKI: I think that Paul is right in certain ways. Absolutely, empathy sort of begins parochially. Our instinctive empathy might be more driven towards people in our tribe than outside of it. I often think of oxytocin, you know, this chemical that sort of causes us to bond to other people, right? We often think of oxytocin as the love drug or the cuddle hormone, but it turns out that if you give people oxytocin intranasally, for instance, they become more caring about people in their group but less caring about people outside their group. In essence sort of turning up people's empathy, in that case, means turning up their parochialism.

I think a big place where Paul and I differ is on what we do with this information. So Paul, I think, believes that, OK, empathy tends to be parochial and biased towards insiders versus outsiders, so we should give up on it altogether. I think differently. I think that that's a problem with how empathy tends to operate. But I try to focus us on the fact that we can control how we empathize and make choices about the way that we deploy our caring. And if we recognize that, hey, I'm empathizing in a parochial way, in a tribal way, we can try to make a different choice and broaden our empathy even towards people who are different from ourselves.

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VEDANTAM: You've done some very interesting work with police officers where you brought to bear this insight that you just talked about. Tell me about that work and tell me about how sometimes the right recommendation might actually be to tell people behave a little less sympathetically.

ZAKI: Yeah. So for the book, I profiled Washington state's Criminal Justice Training Center. Although these officers were very empathic towards citizens, they were even more empathic towards fellow police officers. And that included fellow police officers who had engaged in potential police misconduct, right? So while I was there, there was a case of police officers who had shot an unarmed man named Antonio Zambrano-Montes. And during my visit to CJTC, the officers involved in that shooting, they're not indicted at all.

So that seemed like a travesty of justice to many people in Washington state. But the people at CJTC were adamant that these were good guys who had just made a mistake. That level of empathy for people in their own group I feel - and this is just my perspective - might have interfered with their ability to understand how the rest of the world saw what had happened.

And in fact, this is consistent with research by my friend Emile Bruneau. He's studied sort of parochial empathy in a lot of different intergroup contexts. And what he finds is that sometimes if you want to predict when someone will be willing to be aggressive towards outsiders or unwilling to compromise with someone on the other side of a conflict, it's not enough to measure whether they empathize with the people on the outside. You have to also measure how empathic they are to their own group. And it turns out that people who are extraordinarily empathic towards people in their group even if they're also empathic towards outsiders are unwilling to compromise, unwilling to do anything that could threaten their own tribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAKI: So what this suggests is that sometimes if we want to open ourselves up to other cultures, to people on the other side of a political or racial divide, maybe what we should start out doing is not just trying to get to know them and empathize more with them but to recognize if we're empathizing so much with our group that we'll be unable to be flexible emotionally.

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about another paradox of empathy. You say that about 50% of oncologists report feeling intense heartbreak when they communicate bad news to patients. So even as empathy is this very powerful driver of positive outcomes in medical settings, for example, it also seems to come at some personal cost.

ZAKI: Yeah. In fact, even having medical students simulate delivering bad news makes them anxious, makes their palms start to sweat and their hearts start to race. Empathy is hugely beneficial including in medical contexts for the people who receive it, but it can be an occupational hazard for the people who give it.

VEDANTAM: I understand that a friend of yours is a psychotherapist, and she avoids scheduling depressed patients at the end of the day for, in some ways, the same reason.

ZAKI: Yeah, yeah, because she feels as though their negative mood will seep into her and sort of leave her unable to interact well with her family. And I think this is part of the double-edged sword of empathy for people in caring professions. On the one hand, many of these people are driven to their work by a preternatural care for others, but on the other hand, that same care can cause them to lose themselves, especially if they're in really intense medical settings where they're surrounded by sort of - chronically surrounded by other people's deep suffering.

And as a result, oftentimes I think people in caring professions feel like they're stuck in a double bind between caring for other people adequately but potentially grinding themselves down or turning themselves off. This is something that is called in the medical profession defensive dehumanization, the idea that physicians and other health care professionals feel like they sometimes have to turn off their empathy and stop seeing their patients as people just so they can go on being people.

VEDANTAM: You cite this interesting study that Mark Pancer conducted in the 1970s, which is another example of this kind of defensive behavior where people avoid situations where they might be called upon to demonstrate empathy. What was the study, and what did he find?

ZAKI: Yeah. This was a fascinating study where Pancer placed a table sort of asking for charitable donations in the middle of a busy sort of college student union. And the table had a request for donations to charity. And sometimes, it had a picture of a sort of happy child on it. And other times, it had a picture of a suffering child on it. Sometimes, the table had no one manning it, and sometimes, the table had a person there who was in a wheelchair. And so the sad child and the person in the wheelchair were what Pancer thought of as empathic triggers, things that when people saw them they might feel sad. Maybe they'd feel obligated to donate as well.

And what he found is that when he put those empathic triggers on the table, people actually walked further away. They sort of went out of their way to avoid the table more. It was almost as though they were trying to keep physical distance between them and something that would make them feel empathy, either because it would feel bad or because it would force them to do something like donate that maybe they didn't really want to do.

I think a lot of us have this experience when we see, for instance, a homeless individual on the sidewalk ahead of us. I've heard of people who cross the street to avoid that encounter maybe because they don't want to sort of see that person's suffering close up because it will make them feel sad or guilty or both.

VEDANTAM: There's some irony there, isn't there, which is that the person who is likely to actually be more empathic is also the person who's likely to cross the street because they recognize that the empathy that they have inside them is going to make them feel bad.

ZAKI: Absolutely, yeah. I've talked with lots of people who identify as empaths and basically say that they're crippled by their over abundance of care for other people and that sometimes they avoid sort of busy cities overall just because they don't want to be inundated with other people's pain.

VEDANTAM: So what happens at the level of individuals also at some level manifests itself at the level of groups and even the level of nations. White Americans asked to read about the suffering of Native Americans become more likely to say that Native Americans are unable to feel complex emotions such as hope and shame. So in other words, empathy not only can produce pain, pain can not only produce disengagement, but we can actually almost dehumanize other people because we're so, in some ways, reluctant to accept the pain that comes with actually empathizing with them.

ZAKI: Yeah, absolutely, especially if you or a group that you belong to is responsible for that pain because then empathy can twist into a sense of guilt or even self-loathing. There are a lot of studies like this. In one classic set of studies from the 1950s, psychologists asked people to repeatedly shock, electrically shock, another person. And what they found was that when people had to shock someone else, they ended up saying that they liked that person less. Almost as though they were defensively, again, turning down their empathy for that individual.

And there's a dramatic example of this that was studied about 10 years ago with death workers in the American South. These are executioners. And what they found is that people who worked in - on death rows were likely to dehumanize inmates and say that they had given up the right to be treated like people. And this is especially true if they were the ones physically involved in delivering lethal injections and the like. So again, in lots of ways, empathy can hurt us, right? It can be unpleasant or cause us to view ourselves in ways that we don't like. And that in turn can cause us to avoid it.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, how to manage this tricky balance and how we can train ourselves with deliberate practice to be more empathetic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAINTBALL GUN FIRING)

VEDANTAM: During his month-long performance art piece, tens of thousands of paintballs were fired at Wafaa Bilal in his studio. The white walls of his gallery turned fluorescent yellow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILAL: Yeah, so you could just - it keep repeating getting hit.

VEDANTAM: On day 11, a shooter from Estonia began bombarding his lamp until it fell apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILAL: It was sad for me because the lamp represented just the only thing that stayed alive beside me in this space, especially at night. And it was very...

VEDANTAM: Viewers online could see Wafaa's sadness. Later that day, one of those viewers came to visit him in person.

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BILAL: So the lamp was totally broken. And I have a person here, walked in with a brand-new lamp.

MATT: Hi. My name is Matt (ph). I was watching the camera this morning. I saw the lamp went out. So I had some time. I thought I'd run to Target. Got a new lamp and some light bulbs. So I know sometimes you need all the help you can get, even in an - in a situation like this. So thought I'd bring that by and just help you out a little.

VEDANTAM: Jamil, talk about this moment. Perfect strangers are attacking Wafaa, and then a perfect stranger shows up to help him. What do you think causes someone to take the step of saying, this problem is my problem - this suffering is my suffering?

ZAKI: Well, it's a beautiful story. And, you know, there's so many like it. And I think it really - Wafaa's story shows you the two sides of how empathy can work in our modern context, right? On the one hand, you've got people who are anonymous sort of feeling as though, you know, they've had the brake lines cut from their social lives, and they can do whatever they want without having to worry about the consequences. So they're acting aggressively towards a total stranger.

On the other hand, you have someone who taps into that stranger's story who's paying attention to Wafaa. He's watching the video of him and realizing what he's going through, sort of able to tap into the story of this stranger. And that, instead of destroying his empathy, builds it, stretches it towards this person and drives him, inspires him to help him.

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BILAL: I forgot to mention something that's really important. Matt is a Marine.

VEDANTAM: Matt wasn't the only visitor.

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LAURA: Hi, I'm Laura (ph). I live here in Chicago, so I came down to the gallery. And I made some of my famous muffins. (Laughter) It's actually my sister's recipe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I noticed the other night when you went to sleep that you had one black sock on and one white sock, so I brought you some socks.

VEDANTAM: There were lots of people online who helped Wafaa too. Sometimes they took control of the paintball gun by repeatedly pressing down a key and pointing the gun away from Wafaa. He called them his virtual human shields.

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BILAL: Something is really amazing happening right now. I have about 36 or so people pressing the button down on the left preventing people from panning into my direction.

VEDANTAM: Here is Wafaa on day 31 after stepping outside the gallery building for the first time in a month.

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BILAL: And the whole idea has reinforced my belief in humanity and human kindness. So thank you very much for keeping the hope alive. And please keep the conversation going.

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VEDANTAM: It may seem surprising that Wafaa's month in the paintball gallery left him feeling optimistic about humanity. But he's not alone in that optimism. Jamil Zaki also thinks there are ways we might use technology to form connections with people whom we previously did not see as being like ourselves. He's done work looking at how virtual reality might help people identify with others whose lives are very different from their own.

ZAKI: What we wanted to do is use technology to bring people not just to sort of observe the experiences of a homeless individual but observe them from the inside. So we had a simulation where people went through a series of scenes. These are sort of virtual reality scenes of what it might be like to become homeless. So in one scene, they've been evicted from their apartment, and they're trying to figure out what they can sell to make ends meet and stay in their apartment just one more month. In the second scene, they've failed to stay in their apartment and are now sort of sleeping in their car, which is then impounded.

And then, in a third scene, they're on a local bus line, which, in fact, in the Bay Area, there is a bus line that homeless individuals often take to for shelter during the night. So again, this showed people in an interactive, immersive way the process that an individual might go through when they become homeless. What we found was that this short simulation powerfully affected people's empathy for the homeless.

Even a month later, people who had gone through that simulation as opposed to a control condition were less likely to dehumanize homeless individuals. And they were more supportive of policies that would produce affordable housing for people in the Bay Area, which is a very sort of hot-button issue around here. So again, this suggests that by putting ourselves into the story of people who on the surface appear different from us, we can recognize, as you put it nicely, our common humanity with them. And that can trigger empathy in a really natural way.

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VEDANTAM: There are also some less high-tech ways to get people to walk in the shoes of other people. And one of the things you mention in the book is the idea of the theater. How does being an actor in some ways prompt you to develop the muscle of empathy?

ZAKI: Yeah. I mean, if you think about what acting is, that you really immerse yourself so deeply in the character that you stop being yourself and start being them for a little while, I mean, I'd say it's more than walking a mile in their shoes. You're almost walking a mile in their skin. (Laughter) And as a result, there's some evidence, at least, that acting in fact bolsters people's empathy.

So in a great set of studies, Thalia Goldstein looked at adolescents who were in performing arts high schools and compared them, you know, at the beginning and end of the year to students who were being trained in visual arts. And what she found is that sort of acting, training in acting, improved kids' empathy more than training in a different type of art, which is not to say that training in the visual arts doesn't have advantages - I'm sure it does - but sort of embodying another person in the way that actors do almost is like, I would say, a performance-enhancing drug for empathy, if you will.

VEDANTAM: And in some ways, does the same go for narrative fiction? I mean, I feel like when I'm reading a great novel, you know, I, as you said a second ago, become transported. I become, you know, a woman who's living in the 19th century. And in some ways, deeply written, beautifully written narrative fiction has his ability to pull us deep into the lives of other people.

ZAKI: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, this is why I love fiction as well because it really allows us to effortlessly voyage into the lives of other people and not just see them, again, from the outside but see them from the inside. There's a fair amount of evidence now that sort of the more fiction that people read, the more empathic that they become. So there's a number of correlational studies that show, for instance, that children who read lots of storybooks versus those who read less fiction become more empathic. And that's - holds for adults also. Unfortunately for me, reading nonfiction like scientific articles, not that helpful.

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VEDANTAM: The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology doesn't do it?

ZAKI: It's not really the empathy gym that some of us are looking for. But there's also some experimental evidence now coming out that even small doses of fiction produce small but reliable improvements in people's empathy. And I think this is especially important because fiction is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people who are different from us who maybe we might not have a chance to meet otherwise, right?

So for instance, you can maybe - it would be hard to meet someone who is - I don't know - a Bolivian miner. But you could probably go to a bookstore and find a novel about their experiences. And likewise, there's some evidence for instance that when people read novelistic, vivid accounts of the experiences of Arab Americans or people of different gender identities than themselves, they form greater empathy for those other groups.

VEDANTAM: We've talked in different ways about how redefining who's in the in-group can reshape our capacity for empathy. You mentioned a very interesting research study in the book involving fans of the Manchester United soccer team. Do you remember that study? And if you do, can you tell me about it?

ZAKI: Yeah, I love this study from Mark Levine and his colleagues. So they (laughter) recruited rabid Manchester United fans.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) We all follow United.

ZAKI: And, you know, fandom in U.K. soccer is very important. And they asked them to write about why they loved Manchester United so much and then told them that they would go to a different building on campus to watch film of Man U playing. While they were on their way across campus, they came across a jogger who appeared to twist his ankle and fall to the ground writhing in pain. The - this person was in fact an actor.

And the trick here was that the psychologists made it such that sometimes that actor was wearing a Manchester United jersey. Sometimes they were wearing a jersey of Liverpool, which at the time was Manchester United's most hated rival. And other times, they were wearing a blank jersey. And what they found was that Man U fans were more than willing to help fellow Man U fans but also more than willing to basically step over a Liverpool fan as they sort of writhed on the ground in pain. This is sort of classic tribalism in terms of our empathy and generosity.

But what I love about this study is that the psychologists ran a second version of it. And here, instead of asking Man U fans to write about why they loved the team, they asked them to write about why they loved soccer, why it is such a beautiful game. And then they put them in the same scenario. And what they found was that after writing about how much they loved soccer, individuals were not just willing to help fellow Man U fans but also willing to help Liverpool fans. They still didn't help the person in the blank jersey, which I guess suggests that it's...

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ZAKI: Which I suppose suggests that it's better to be part of any tribe than part of none. But I think there's a deeper takeaway from this study, which is that, yes, it's easier to empathize with people who are like us than unlike us, but all of us have many different selves inside us at any given moment, and each self carries with it a different group, maybe of a different size.

So if I think of myself, for instance, as a Stanford person, well, then people at UC Berkeley are my mortal enemy, especially during the big game. But if I think of myself as a Californian, then my in-group, the people who deserve my empathy and who it's easy to empathize with, that group grows. And if I can think of myself as - I don't know - an American or a human being, then that group will grow even further.

VEDANTAM: You know, I'm thinking about the story you told me about your parents' divorce when you were a small child. You write in the book about your parents that two people's experiences could differ so drastically, yet both be true and deep is maybe the most important lesson I've ever learned.

ZAKI: I think, you know, I often attribute that period of my life to really making me who I am at the deepest level. I mean, I think, not for nothing, they say that research is mesearch (ph) - right? At least in psychology, people tend to gravitate towards ideas that have made an impact on their life. And I think for me, empathizing with my parents was a survival skill that I needed just to sort of keep my family together at some level.

But it also taught me at a much broader level that people can be fundamentally different from each other for fundamentally similar reasons, right? My parents had totally different values not because one of them was wrong or because one of them was a bad person but because of the lives that they had lived and the experiences that they had had and the things that had hurt them and helped them along the way.

I think that this is a lesson that I try to impart to all of my students as well is that, you know, 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. But that's a mistake. It's something that psychologists call naive realism, the idea that your version of the world is the world. And I think that empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else's world is just as real as yours.

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VEDANTAM: Jamil Zaki is the author of "The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World." He conducts research on empathy at Stanford University. Jamil, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

ZAKI: Thanks for having me.

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VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Our unsung hero today is Rosa Portillo (ph). She's a part of NPR's janitorial staff. Every day, Rosa travels the floors of our building keeping our kitchens and bathrooms clean. She also offers impromptu Spanish lessons to everyone who asks for them. Thank you, Rosa.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you like this episode, please share it with someone you know.

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VEDANTAM: When a big obstacle pops up in your life, it can be hard to focus on other priorities.

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SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN: We're hungry. And then this thing starts going off in the head saying, do you realize we're hungry? Have I mentioned we're hungry? We're hungry.

VEDANTAM: Next week, we'll continue our You 2.0 series with an episode about making mindful short and long-term choices.

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VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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