An expert interview with Kari Leibowitz, a Social Psychology PhD candidate at Stanford

Bringing a lens of academic research to the design of empathy interventions and methods

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An Expert Interview with Kari Leibowitz, Social Psychology PhD Candidate, Stanford University

Kari is a 2nd year graduate student in social psychology at Stanford. Her work in the Mind and Body Lab focuses on understanding how our mindsets, or beliefs, can influence our health and well-being. She has a background in compassion meditation (CBCT) from Emory University and now works to understand how we can better leverage psychological and social forces, such as compassion, to improve the doctor-patient relationship. 

How would you define empathy? How do you measure empathy? 

The literal definition: feeling what another person feels. 

The most common measure: Interpersonal Reactivity Index survey

The survey measures multiple dimensions of empathy including: 

  1. Perspective Taking – the tendency to spontaneously adopt the psychological point of view of others
  2. Fantasy – taps respondents' tendencies to transpose themselves imaginatively into the feelings and actions of fictitious characters in books, movies, and plays
  3. Empathic Concern – assesses "other-oriented" feelings of sympathy and concern for unfortunate others
  4. Personal Distress – measures "self-oriented" feelings of personal anxiety and unease in tense interpersonal settings  

An alternative and sometimes preferred definition: compassion, or understanding what someone feels and wanting to help them. I like to distinguish between compassion and empathy because while sharing someone's feelings can be important, it can sometimes be maladaptive (think teachers, doctors, etc).

What are some examples of methods, interventions, or practices to build empathy?

Here are a few experiments from Dr. Jason Okonofua's work on teachers adopting an empathetic mindset and its impact on students. 

- a targeted message about empathic discipline versus punitive mindset, such as a brief article which reminded them either that “good teacher–student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” (empathic mindset) or that “punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom” (punitive mindset). 

- reinforcing messages about empathetic discipline through stories from students

- having teachers write how they incorporate or could incorporate these ideas in their own practice

See the attached paper for more detail.   

What is the most surprising method to build empathy that you have heard of? 

Importantly, interventions should be "wise" - skillful. They are often most effective at points of transition (i.e. going into middle school) or with targeted groups, for example, you intervene on the identified cool/popular kids at a school and then if it works on them, a culture of empathy will spread. 

One example comes from Greg Walton's interventions for belonging: Black and White first-year college students read a survey of upper-year students, which indicated that feelings of nonbelonging are normal at first in college and dissipate with time. This was designed to help students attribute challenges to the difficulty of the transition to college for all students rather than to an enduring lack of belonging (cf. Wilson et al., 2002). A writing exercise encouraged students to internalize this idea. In total, the intervention lasted an hour. There was little effect for White students. But for Black students, the intervention raised GPA from sophomore through senior year, halving the achievement gap (Walton & Cohen, 2011).

Here are some more examples from Erika Weisz and Jamil Zaki's work on Empathy Building Interventions.

- teach people not only how to empathize, but also encouraging them to want to empathize 

- use role-play techniques to build empathy through simulating a target’s experience

- explicitly instruct perceivers to imagine the life and feelings of a target who was a member of a stigmatized group

- use vignettes, videos, stories, and letters to deliver similar information about targets’ perspectives

- to foster compassion or empathic concern, use techniques like meditation to increase understanding of and caring for others

- change a person’s external display of empathy by teaching perceivers to recognize and respond to targets’ distress

There's also a lot of good work on using meditation to build empathy through cognitive exercises. Learn more on the CBCT website.  

What is the simplest method to build empathy that you have heard of?

With psychologically simple methods, like "saying is believing interventions" you tell someone about the importance and usefulness of empathy, for example, and then you have kids write letters "to other kids." For example, tell them they're going to be writing to younger students at the school - how can they build empathy? Then by writing it, they come to understand and adopt those views themselves.

 Are there certain conditions or environments that encourage empathy?  

I think it's easier to be empathetic when you know everyone is trying to be. For example, it's much easier to try and understand where someone is coming from if you feel they're trying to do the same for you. So, establishing a baseline mindset that everyone in a school/classroom is coming from an empathetic place and to assume this going in could be really helpful.

How might a leader (or teacher) build a culture of empathy within a team or classroom? 

In addition to the above interventions, teachers could model it themselves, handle disagreements by encouraging active perspective taking, point out empathy as they see it, and draw from relevant examples in whatever subject you teach - literature, history, etc. encouraging students to perspective take about people in the world, even celebrities.  

Thanks, Kari! 

[Optional] Synthesize a little! What's one take away or insight to leave people with?

Interventions to build empathy can be simple and powerful.
Examples include:
- providing materials or articles on empathy
- role-playing to simulate others' experiences
- writing exercises to internalize ideas and concepts around empathy or belonging, for example
- compassion meditation to increase a sense of connectedness
- explicit instruction to imagine someone else's thoughts and feelings
- storytelling from others' perspectives
- assuming empathy in others

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