Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the case for a "muscular empathy," rooted in a curiosity and a rigorous - not simplified - investigation of the decisions we might make were we in different times or in others' shoes. "It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves," writes Coates. "But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't and then ask 'Why?'"
Empathy in the News
YouTube is chock-full of popular videos of monkeys working together to share food, of elephants acting empathically toward their peers. For some reason, people love stories of empathy in animals. (Maybe such scenes trigger an oxytocin release in our own brains…) Well, now there’s a new (and unlikely) animal joining the list of empathetic creatures: the rat. The much maligned and oft-experimented-on rodent is getting a lot of press this week thanks to a widely circulated study in the journal Science. Experiments showed that rats consistently exhibited “empathically motivated pro-social behavior” by liberating encaged lab-mates even when there was no apparent incentive to do so. About half the time, they even chose to rescue fellow rats before rescuing encaged chocolate. This New York Times was among dozens of outlets to cover the story.
We're hard-wired for empathy. But are some more hard-wired than others? According to recent studies: yes. NPR's "Science Friday" features Dr. Sarina Rodrigues-Saturn, assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University, discussing recent discoveries about our genetic predisposition for empathy. With program host Ira Flatow and guest callers, Dr. Rodrigues-Saturn explores the implications of having an "empathy gene" that manifests in different ways for different individuals.
Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon's empathy-cultivating program rolls out a major initiative in Scotland.
In this deeply insightful essay on empathy and leadership US Army Col. Eric Kail draws out the differences between someone who is charge and leads for themselves, and someone in charge who leads with a deep understanding of others. Leadership, he reminds us, is a two-way relationship, and "empathy," he writes, "is far more critical to good leadership than any technical knowledge, skill or ability."
"It's not just about winning, it's about how you play the game." We've heard that before, but there's more to it: how you play the game depends on how you coach the players. In this NYT article, David Bornstein reports on the power of positive coaching and highlights Ashoka Fellow Jim Thompson's Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) as a culture-shifting force in sports and beyond. By embedding empathy as a core value on sports teams, the PCA encourages the kind of sportsmanship that is of deep value both on the field and off.
Yale's Dr. Marc Brackett, the pioneer behind the RULER approach, realized early on that having teachers develop social emotional learning (SEL) in their students wouldn't work unless teachers possessed the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to practice those behaviors themselves. His RULER approach thus trains teachers to be more empathic toward their students, and in turn offers students the tools they need to regulate their own behavior, and to understand that of others'. Finally, he helps teachers to integrate those lessons across all subject matter. The result is as much as a 60% reduction in behavioral problems, and improvements in students' overall performance.
Jason Marsh, editor in chief at the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, responds to David Brooks' provocative op-ed. Drawing from the scientific research on the topic, Marsh emphasizes that empathy is a "vital first step" for moral action.
David Brooks has some serious questions about how effective empathy can be in leading to real change. We agree that feeling isn't enough. What we must cultivate and apply throughout our lives, then, is empathy in action.