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Stanford scholar examines how to build empathy in an unjust world

Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki examined how to cultivate empathy in an unjust world. (Image credit: Sarah Deragon)

Jun 5 2019

Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki examined the different dimensions of empathy – including its positive and in some cases, negative effects – and found that through the right practice, empathy can be cultivated in sustainable ways.

BY MELISSA DE WITTE

In an increasingly divisive world, it might seem that empathy for other people’s opinion and views is becoming ever less common. But the trend is not irreversible, according to new research by Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki.

Empathy is a skill that can be cultivated over time, Zaki found, and with the right practices, anyone – even the most close-minded individuals – can come to care about other people in healthy and sustainable ways.

While empathy offers numerous social benefits – for example, patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care – empathy might not be a good thing, Zaki said. When healthcare professionals care too much, they are at elevated risk for burnout, depression and trauma from over-empathizing with others’ suffering, he said.

These are some of the key findings to emerge from Zaki’s research into the various dimensions of empathy. Zaki has brought these insights, many from his own research, into his new book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.

Here, Zaki talks about what he learned about empathy – from experiments he led in his own lab to the research and interviews he conducted for the book. Zaki is an associate professor of psychology in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and is a member of Stanford’s interdisciplinary biosciences institute, Bio-X.