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Many people believe that life is a zero-sum game and that the most ruthless people get the furthest. But Jamil Zaki, a Stanford psychologist and author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, says there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.

“It turns out that nice guys finish first in lots of different ways,” Zaki said on KQED’s Forum program. And, when people are nice, they not only help others, but they help themselves as well. Empathetic people are generally happier, healthier and more effective at work. And, acting from a place of empathy, he argues, could be just what the world needs at this moment, when division has become the norm.

He points to the case of a former Canadian white supremacist, Tony McAleer, who turned to a mentor when he was trying to leave that lifestyle. He confessed his participation in groups like White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and his role as a recruiter for them. He didn’t realize that his mentor, Dov Baron, was Jewish. When McAleer learned this fact, he immediately felt shame and disconnection, but rather than judging him, Baron had compassion for his struggle. Zaki writes about this act of empathy in his book:

“‘Here was this man who loved me and wanted to heal me, and here was I, a person who had once advocated for the annihilation of his people.’ Tony felt he didn’t deserve a shred of compassion from Dov, but Dov extended it nonetheless. This cracked Tony open. He’d created a surface of hatred to cover his shame and loneliness. Once someone accepted him warts and all, he no longer needed it.”

Dov Baron’s empathetic response to McAleer’s hate helped set him on a different path. When Baron showed compassion, it made a bigger impact than shunning McAleer. It opened up an opportunity for dialogue and growth. McAleer now runs an organization called Life After Hate to help other people leave hate groups.

“I truly feel that the cultural forces that are pushing us apart are so vast and so prevalent that acting with empathy, and trying to connect despite them, is a radical act,” Zaki said. “It takes pushing back against something in order to reclaim that common humanity.”

He points to evidence that empathy has been declining over the past 30 years. Psychologists measure empathy through self-reported surveys. Participants rate themselves on a scale of one to five on various questions like: “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” or “I try to think about everyone’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.” The scores are averaged to get a total empathy score.

In 1979, the average American’s total empathy score was a four out of five, a “solid B.” In 2009, thirty years later, the average American scored a three out of five. In practical terms, Zaki says Americans in 2009 are 75-percent less empathetic than their counterparts thirty years ago. Studies like these stoke his concern about empathy erosion.’I truly feel that the cultural forces that are pushing us apart are so vast and so prevalent that acting with empathy, and trying to connect despite them, is a radical act. It takes pushing back against something in order to reclaim that common humanity.’Jamil Zaki, Stanford psychologist and author ofThe War For Kindness

“I don’t argue that what we want is maximal empathy at all times,” Zaki said. “If you felt everyone’s pain at all times, you wouldn’t make it down one block in San Francisco without falling down in a heap.”

And, he recognizes that there are many professions that experience empathy fatigue, which is why he thinks empathy is a skill and a tool that needs to be cultivated and used at the right times. Part of functioning in this world is to know when to fall back and when to employ empathy.

Those in helping professions like teaching, social work, or medicine can buffer themselves from burnout and “compassion fatigue” with self-care strategies, including meditation and social support. A study of nurses in acute mental health settings found staff support groups helped buffer the nurses, but only if they were structured to minimize negative communication and focused on talking about challenges in constructive ways.

Concerns About Simplistic Definitions of Empathy

English Professor Cris Beam also studies empathy and wrote a book called, I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy. She notes that there are many definitions of empathy. Some of the earliest, and simplest ones, characterize empathy as the ability to “stand in another’s shoes.” Brené Brown, who has recently popularized empathy, defines it as “feeling with people,” and notes that it’s a “vulnerable choice” because it requires a person to tap into something personal that identifies with the struggle of another.

While researching South Africa, Beam came across another definition of empathy she finds powerful: Empathy is a disruption of power. She described the case of Eugene de Kock, an apartheid-era assassin responsible for the deaths of dozens of black activists. South African authorities released de Kock from prison after he had served 20 years, in part because some families of his victims supported the move. They felt de Kock held too much power as the embodiment of evil, and that it kept other South Africans from reflecting on their own role in apartheid.

“We can think about empathy as a way to not only look at the other, but to look at ourselves,” Beam said.

Beam contends that empathy is a moral position, not a discrete set of skills, as it is sometimes taught. She says empathy can be strengthened, but before that a person must be grounded in an empathetic understanding that often comes from literature, art and theater. Yale professor Paul Bloom is also critical of the emphasis on empathy, arguing that it’s easier to empathetic towards individuals, leading society to make important policy decisions based on emotion instead of facts.

“I worry about [empathy] being taught as a skill because it should be something of a core identity and a way of moving through the world,” said Beam.

Some of her concern comes from the way that empathy has been co-opted by the business world. Terms like “empathetic design” and “empathetic marketing” repel her. She sees these as attempts to isolate the consumer, and provide them with exactly what they want, when they want it, as antithetical to a core part of deeper empathy – connection.

Could Empathy Change Systems?

Jamil Zaki agrees with Beam that deep empathy is about connection. But his research shows that empathy can be developed, like a muscle. And, he thinks that could affect the world positively not only at the individual level, but in things like police training.

In his book, Zaki describes how Washington State’s police trainer, Sue Rahr, used the power of social norms to reduce use-of-force among police there. She recognized that many police saw themselves as “warriors,” a social norm that could push new recruits who signed up to police with altruistic motives into believing they need to show dominance at all times. Rahr pushed back against that norm, training police to work with the community instead of against them. Psychologists recently chose 300 police officers working in high-need areas of Seattle and ran them through Rahr’s program. They found those officers used force 30 percent less often than their peers. And, other studies have shown police who went through the training have more knowledge about how to deal with someone in a behavioral crisis and more emotional intelligence.

Still, Zaki is quick to point out the empathy can’t solve everything. Many of the most pernicious problems are structural, not individual, and no amount of individual empathy can solve them. The policing story is a good example of that – while Rahr’s training takes steps in the right direction it doesn’t solve all the problems with policing, including racial bias. Citizens appreciated attempts to change policing, but were still upset that police officers who did use force were rarely prosecuted.

Stress Makes It Hard To Be Empathetic

Stress inhibits people’s ability to be empathetic. Zaki points out irony here. Many psychologists say human connection is one of the best ways to move past pain or trauma, the very things that keep people from opening up to empathy.

“Often times when we experience stress, we feel that we’re in a rush in order to survive for ourselves, we become untuned to the needs of others,” Zaki said.

famous study conducted in the ‘70s by Princeton researchers John Darley and Daniel Batson asked seminary students to write a sermon about the parable of the good Samaritan. They were then told to go across campus to deliver the sermon. Unbeknownst to the study participants, an actor lurked along the route they would take, and acted as though he required help. Half the participants had been told to take their time getting to the location for the sermon and the other half had been told they were in a rush.

Sixty to 70-percent of the seminary students in the “non-rush” condition stopped to help. Only 10-percent of those in the “rush” condition did so.

“Sometimes one of the most important things is to cue ourselves in for one moment and recognize that there’s a full person on the other side of this interaction,” Zaki said.

He sees enormous potential in the internet to connect people, but is also aware that often communication through the internet has the effect of dehumanizing the person on the other side of the exchange. When we interact online, we can’t see the usual cues that indicate to us how the other person is reacting to what we’re saying. That makes it easier to be cruel and to not listen.

But it’s not all bad news. Empathy is contagious and establishing compassion and kindness as social norms can help spread it. Zaki and his graduate student, Erika Weisz, conducted a study with close to 1,000 seventh graders in the San Francisco Bay Area in which students wrote about why they think empathy is important and useful. Then students read one another’s responses, learning that their peers valued caring as much as they did. The data from this study is preliminary, but students told Weisz and her team that after learning about their peers’ empathy they were also more motivated to be empathetic.

Jason Okonofua has been experimenting with similar prosocial interventions with teachers. In a small study at five middle schools, he taught teachers about “empathetic discipline.” They reflected on discipline strategies that would not only punish students, but help them grow. They heard stories of students who’d experienced empathetic discipline and how it helped them. And teachers wrote about strategies they could use in their classrooms. After the training, the empathetic attitudes teachers expressed in their writing seemed to show up in the classroom. Students reported feeling more respected, especially if they had previously been suspended.

While none of these examples are definitive, they hint at the possibility that systems can change as the people within them change their attitudes. Humans conform to social norms – the good ones and the bad ones – and shaping those norms can be a powerful force for promoting empathy.



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The color red is known to evoke an emotional response: From warmth, to aggression, to anger, to danger, red is a powerful color. But first and foremost, red often symbolizes passion, sexuality, dominance, and love. It is, after all, the star of the show each year on Valentine’s Day.

This romantic association is so ingrained that research has found wearing the scarlet shade can affect the way we perceive people donning it. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General revealed that simply wearing the color red or “being bordered by the rosy hue” made male participants more attractive and sexually desirable to women. The inverse has also been proved true: A paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that women wearing red were sat closer to and asked more intimate questions by men. Moreover, a 2016 study revealed that red’s association with passion and love increases feelings of sexuality and attraction in both men and women wearing the color.

But new evidence suggests there’s a catch in this weird color psychology: the onlooker’s marital status. A three-part study published this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Appliedsuggests that men wearing the color red may actually cause married women to avoid them—in an effort to maintain their relationship.

The first two parts of the study included 1,009 female participants (aged between 18 to 50) and concluded that married women found photos of men displayed against a red background less attractive. However, the opposite was found when it came to single women. The third part of the study consisted of 412 married women, and the researchers found that photos of men on a red background prompted women to recall words related to relationship threat and commitment, as opposed to photos with men on a white background. 

Nicolas Pontes, study author and lecturer at the University of Queensland, suggested that red’s association with sex and romance may actually push away married people, who may feel compelled to protect their relationship by avoiding the attractive other.

“While most research would suggest that wearing the color red can enhance one’s attractiveness to others, our research suggests wearing the color red in an attempt to increase attractiveness and impress another may backfire and essentially lead to undesired outcomes when the person is married, which is the case for more than half of the population,” Pontes told PsyPost

So if you’re wearing the color red in order to increase your perceived attractiveness, maybe consider your audience. Not everyone may be enthused by the sexy undertones.

When in doubt, remember the wise words of couples’ therapist Shelly Bullard, MFT: “People who we tend to perceive as ‘naturally attractive’ likely spend less time trying to create an appearance that fits a particular aesthetic, and more time cultivating an inner connection to who they are.”


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One in three people ages 65 or older will suffer a fall. It’s time to assess your balance and improve it.


Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock

Many older adults focus on exercise and diet to stay healthy. But one of the worst offenders to health—poor balance—is often an afterthought. “I see a lot of older adults who are nonchalant about balance,” says Liz Moritz, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Unfortunately, imbalance is a common cause of falls, which send millions of people in the United States to emergency departments each year with broken hips and head injuries. But there are many things you can do to improve your balance. The strategies below are some of the most effective.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy for balance focuses on the ability of the joints and brain to communicate, the balance system in the ear (the vestibular system), and vision. “We coordinate all three with exercises such as standing on one foot, first with the eyes open, and then with the eyes closed. We also work on joint flexibility, walking, and lower-extremity exercises on one or two legs,” says Moritz. Other exercises that boost balance include chair stands (see “Move of the month”) and squats. Make sure you get training before attempting these exercises at home.

Muscle strengthening

“Core strength is very important for balance. If the abdominal muscles in your core are weak, they cannot support your limbs, especially when you’re walking. If the gluteal muscles in your buttocks and hips aren’t strong, they won’t be able to propel you forward,” says Moritz. Muscle strengthening can help. Moritz suggests starting with gentle core exercises like a pelvic tilt (lie on the floor with your knees bent up, then roll your pelvis up) and then moving to more intense exercises such as wall planks (stand six inches from a wall, keeping your body rigid, then lean forward with your forearms flat against the wall, and hold the position for 20 seconds). Leg lifts will strengthen the gluteal muscles, and adding resistance bands to leg lifts makes the exercise even more effective.

Tai chi and yoga

“Tai chi and yoga are exercises that make you pay attention to the control and quality of movement, rather than the quantity, which improves your balance,” says Moritz. In tai chi, you practice slow, flowing motions and shift your weight from one limb to another. Yoga incorporates a series of focused postures and breathing. Both exercises increase flexibility, range of motion, leg and core strength, and reflexes. The result: you become better at balancing in a number of different positions, which helps you avoid falling if you encounter uneven pavement or obstacles in your path.

Vision correction

“If you can’t see where you’re going, your fall risk goes up,” says Moritz. “A lot of people I treat for balance are here be-cause they tripped when they didn’t see something on the floor.” The fix may be as simple as a new eyeglasses prescription. Get a comprehensive, dilated eye exam every one or two years if you’re 65 or older, every one to three years if you’re age 55 to 64, and every two to four years if you’re 40 to 54. If you have an increased risk for other eye conditions, you may need an eye exam more often.

Assistive walking devices

A cane or a walker can complement your balance and give you more stability and confidence walking. But don’t buy a device on your own. “If it’s too high or too low, that can cause a fall. You need to get it measured, and you need training to learn how to use it,” says Moritz. Training takes just a few physical therapy sessions. Walkers are available with wheels intended for different terrain, lockable brakes, seats, baskets, and other features such as headlights. Canes are available with various handgrips and bases.

Move of the Month:
Chair StandThis exercise strengthens the legs, buttocks, and abdomen. It can be done using a kitchen or desk chair, or even a couch.
1. Sit in a chair with your feet hip-width apart. Place your hands on your thighs.
2. Tighten the muscles in your buttocks and abdomen. Exhale as you slowly stand up.
3. Inhale and slowly sit down. Repeat the exercise 10 times.
© Michael Carroll Photography


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