How Do We Increase Empathy?

Tina Two and Walter One from “Finding the Birthday Cake."

Tina Two and Walter One from “Finding the Birthday Cake.”

Interesting facts about empathy from Nicholas Kristof’s column in the NY Times 1-29-15, which I’ve pared down considerably:

  • First, empathy seems hard-wired. Even laboratory rats sometimes free a trapped companion before munching on a food treat.
  • “Probably the biggest empathy generator is cuteness, such as large eyes, a large head, and a small lower face,” according to Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist. “[This] is why so many charities feature photos of children and why so many conservation organizations feature pandas. Prettier children are more likely to be adopted, and baby-faced defendants get lighter sentences.” Criminal defense lawyers have scruffy clients shave and dress up before appearing in court.


  • Wealth may impede empathy. One study by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley finds that drivers of luxury cars are more likely to cut off other motorists and ignore pedestrians at a crosswalk.
  • Also, heart rates of wealthier research subjects are less affected when they watch a video of children with cancer.
  • Among Democratic politicians, personal wealth is a predictor of supporting legislation that would increase inequality, according to a journal article last year by Michael W. Kraus and Bennett Callaghan.
  • The wealthiest 20 percent of Americans give significantly less to charity as a fraction of income (1.4 percent) than the poorest 20 percent do (3.5 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That may be partly because affluence insulates us from need, so disadvantage becomes theoretical and remote.
  • Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas.
  • Wealth may also turn us inward. Some experiments manipulated research subjects to think of money — such as by having them gaze at a pile of Monopoly money and imagine great wealth — and found that when a person then “accidentally” spilled pencils nearby, those thinking of great wealth were less helpful than those imagining tight budgets and picked up fewer pencils from the floor.

Increasing empathy

  • Dacher Keltner, who runs the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, says having people think about suffering activates the vagus nerve, which is linked to compassion. He also cites evidence that uplifting stories about sacrifice boost empathy, as does contemplation — prayer, meditation, yoga.
  • Keltner says that going out into nature also encourages greater compassion. Feelings of awe, such as those generated by incredible images from space, seem to do the same thing, he says.
  • Professor Pinker, in his superb book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” explores whether the spread of affordable fiction and journalism beginning in the 18th century expanded empathy by making it easier for people to imagine themselves in the shoes of others.
  • Researchers have found that reading literary fiction by the likes of Don DeLillo or Alice Munro — but not beach fiction or nonfiction — can promote empathy.
  • Service trips build empathy by opening eyes and reminding students of their good fortune.
  • Kristof concludes: “So let’s escape the insulation of our comfort zones. Let’s encourage student service projects and travel to distant countries and to needy areas nearby. Whatever the impact on others, volunteering may at least help the volunteer. Let’s teach Dickens and DeLillo in schools, along with literature that humanizes minority groups and builds understanding. Above all, let’s remember that compassion and rationality are not effete markers of weakness, but signs of civilization.”

Help develop empathy in your teens by introducing them to the Enneagram system of 9 types of people, The Enneagram for Teens. See reviews of this and other Wagele books at

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