By Alexander Osornio, Nov. 23, 2021

As part of the Cal Poly Pomona First Year Experience, the Office of Student Success, Equity and Innovation hosted a webinar with Jamil Zaki, author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World” and an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University on Nov. 16.

“The War for Kindness” was chosen for the fall 2021 Common Read for first-year students. It focuses on the significance of empathy in the modern world as an “engine for kindness.” Zaki placed heavy emphasis on the importance of empathy when it comes to the struggles of the modern world, a landscape he characterizes as being designed to make people less empathetic.

“If you wanted to build a system to break human empathy, you could scarcely do better than we have,” he said.

Zaki described the rapid changes brought upon the modern world that have made empathy harder to come by, such as humans living farther apart from each other and interactions being “thinned out, transactional and anonymous.”

Courtesy of Dora Lee

These barriers to empathy were made especially prevalent to the campus community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alejandro Salinas, a political science student, mentioned that Cal Poly Pomona’s move to virtual instruction made him lack empathy due to reduced interaction with his peers.

A major theme Zaki conveyed was the notion that empathy was a skill to be improved rather than a trait one is born with. He described the importance of maintaining one’s level of empathy “like a muscle.”

Salinas took this message to heart.

“Like intelligence and athleticism, it’s fluid,” Salinas said. “You can work on it and get better at it.”

As someone who had already read the book, Salinas also noted the significance of empathy in areas outside of academics or work life.

“I see it more like a self-help book that you can apply to yourself and other people if they need help,” he added.

Zaki also took an empirical approach to his discussion by noting research conducted on empathy, including his own. Findings demonstrate how measures of empathy have decreased over the years as well as the concrete benefits empathy can have.

One study cited had psychologists say statements to participants, such as “I try to look at everyone’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision,” and ask how accurately it describes them. These responses were used to give each participant an “empathy score” from one to five. This study was first developed in the 1970s and was conducted on American college students. Results showed that participants scored an average of four out of five in 1979. This dropped to a three out of five in 2009.

This distinction was noticed by Laurie Starkey, a professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, who was previously unfamiliar with Zaki’s work, but still felt that the topic was relevant to any field.

“I think empathy is so important and I can’t even imagine anything that’s more important when it comes to human relations,” Starkey said.

She noticed the distinction Zaki made in his presentation by presenting research on the topic of empathy, particularly with how empathy is a skill and not a trait. She added that this was something that should be implemented in other forms of education such as K-6 curricula.

“There is science to back up any rationale you have for why it would be great to introduce a curriculum or try to encourage it in others,” she said.

However, Starkey remarked on the importance of empathy education not only being accessible by those who are already empathetic, but also by those who need it the most, such as those in disadvantaged communities and those who are more isolated from society.

“Empathy is something you build from human connections, so if you cut off the human connections, then it’s much harder to reach that empathetic state,” she said.

Dora Lee, director for Academic Support and Learning Services, helped organize the Common Read and is part of the First Year Experience committee which chooses books for the Common Read every semester. Every year, a book is nominated by the committee and vetted through faculty that teach first year experience courses.

This particular book was nominated by committee member Jessica O. Perez, a professor from the College of Engineering. She chose the book due to the significance it had to first-year engineering students when creating things that respond to societal needs.

Like past books chosen for the Common Read, Lee felt this book and event was an opportunity for campus community members to engage with each other around a common topic, particularly with issues relevant to the campus community.

Lee encourages students to contribute to the nomination process by submitting books to the committee for consideration. Nominations will remain open until Feb. 1.

To view a recording of the event the campus community can visit the Office of Student Success website.

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