The Age of Empathy Summary and Review

by Frans de Waal
Has The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Throughout history, people ranging from authors, to philosophers, to political and religious leaders – have warned us of the evil that lies at the core of human nature. These people claim that human beings are egotistical and are mostly motivated by the search to improve their position without thinking of the negative impact they may have on others. This may be mostly based off of the atrocities of war and genocide, but what if this is just a small part of the story? What if, really, at the core of it all, the things that have kept us alive and evolving are empathy and the connection we have to our fellow human beings? What if, rather than a seemingly barbaric desire to kill others, the thing that drives soldiers to enlist is the desire to belong? Let’s explore these ideas and dive deeper into the empathy that’s within us all. In this book summary, you’ll learn:
  • The truth behind why the walls of Jericho were built;
  • What herd instinct is and how it has affected human evolution; and
  • How to tell how long a couple has been together.

The Age of Empathy Key Idea #1: Many people are misguided by the idea that human beings are inherently selfish.

The widespread idea that human nature is fundamentally selfish is rampant, even making its way into pop culture: “Greed is good,” proclaims Michael Douglas’s character in the 1987 movie, Wall Street. “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” Since these ideas are popular when it comes to social and political theory, they’re helped to keep alive the idea that human beings are inherently self-centered. Social Darwinism also supports this general idea. Nineteenth-century British political philosopher Herbert Spencer introduced this idea, saying that it offers a “survival of the fittest” outlook on life between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The idea of Social Darwinism also says that it would be counterproductive to successful people to be obligated to help because they might get dragged down by those who are struggling. These ideas have now worked their way into the business world too. John D Rockefeller, in the early twentieth century referred to the expansion of big businesses at the expense of smaller businesses as “merely the working out of a law of nature.” These are all misunderstandings of human nature and they can be especially dangerous as they start to fuel self-fulfilling prophecies. This was clear in the notorious case of ENRON, an energy company that believed humanity was driven by two things: fear and greed. This lead to a brutal corporate environment and a horrible system ENRON called Rank and Yank. This involved managers ranking employees on a five-point scale and firing anyone who received a five, which lead to 20 percent of their employees being fired each year The way ENRON ran things didn’t stop with their employees either. Because they wanted to raise the price of energy costs, they would cause blackouts and shortages and showed no concern for the harm that could come to people in elevators or on respirators. These awful business practices did end up backfiring though, and ENRON collapsed in 2001.

The Age of Empathy Key Idea #2: Based on historical findings, war and violence haven’t always been a part of the human experience.

Winston Churchill once said, “The story of the human race is War. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending.” However, how much of Churchill’s viewpoint is actually true? If we look closer at both science and history, it becomes clear that warfare was never actually as pervasive as one might believe. Contrary to Churchill’s statement, in actually, human history is made up of long stretches of peace interrupted by small bouts of violence. For example, the walls of Jericho, as discussed in the Old Testament, have long been believed to have been a defensive structure, marking some of the oldest evidence for warfare. However, modern research suggests the tales as told by the Old Testament might not be historically accurate, and that the walls may have actually been made to prevent mudflows. Also, the reality of history is, our ancestors were constantly trying to survive extinction. Living in such small, widely dispersed groups, with a global population of only a couple thousand, warfare probably wasn’t a common concern at all. Much like the modern-day Bushmen in Africa, these ancestors were actually hunter-gatherers. So the reality is, in the history of violence, while warfare did occur occasionally, it was simply an interruption of otherwise peaceful moments in history. While it is believed that modern day warfare and organized combat is fueled by a natural tendency for violence and aggression, it is actually fueled by our natural herd instinct. If you look to the root of famous wars, from Napoleon’s march across the freezing expanse of Russia to American soldiers flying into the Middle East, it’s not the desire for violence that fuels the battle. By following the same orders as everyone else from the general or falling into the same march with the thousands of soldiers around you, you’re fulfilling your natural instincts. These actions are driven by the same herd instinct that fuels other, nonviolent actions as well, such as chanting, singing, dancing, or playing certain sports.

The Age of Empathy Key Idea #3: This same herd instinct can influence bonding for both humans and animals.

Have you ever wondered why yawns are so contagious? Simply thinking about yawning can sometimes cause you to yawn yourself! This is due to unconscious synchrony, another term for the herd instinct found in our daily lives and the lives of many animals. Synchrony and the herd instinct come from the feeling of interconnectedness that humans feel and that also exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom. For instance, not only humans find yawns contagious. Researchers at Kyoto University showed videos of yawning chimpanzees to some apes in their lab, and after viewing the videos, the apes in their lab started yawning too. This is the same synchrony that influences birds to fly in a uniform formation and in the same direction. Because of that, it’s one of the most vital instincts in the animal kingdom. Imagine you’re a member of that flock who’s suddenly left behind by your family. Because things like this can easily happen in the animal kingdom, it’s often a matter of life and death for a bird who’s part of a group like that! This also applies to migrating animals who need rest or food. Because of these instincts, animals are able to stick together and survive, because, often, there is only one chance for food and rest during these long journeys. On top of that, having this kind of synchronization allows important bonds to form in animal groups. This bonding is also seen as subtle mimicry. In humans, when out on a date, someone will respond much better to a potential partner who subtly mimics their actions. This means someone who seems relaxed when you’re relaxed, who takes a sip of water when you do, and who shares your smiles or frowns. Synchrony also influence how you feel about the service you receive. Studies have shown that a waiter who responds to customers with statements like “Good choice!” can easily double the tips they receive. As we’ll see in the next section, this bonding that we experience through synchrony can be even more valuable.

The Age of Empathy Key Idea #4: Humans naturally bond with each other because it can lead to a longer and happier life.

Solitary confinement is considered one of the worst punishments, before death, and there’s a reason for this. It is sometimes such a hard punishment that inmates will often cause trouble just so they can interact with the guards. Therefore, it’s another misunderstanding that the history of society is that it was created by autonomous beings. In the eighteenth century, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called this societal origin story social contract. Society is a compromise that requires people to exchange part of their “freedom” for the safety of numbers. However, there’s still no solid proof that our ancestors didn’t rely on other people for survival and happiness. Human beings are creatures that very much depend on one another, and without both emotional and physical contact, we can become incredibly depressed. Because that’s how human nature is now, it would make sense to assume that’s always been the case. There are also more benefits to companionship than just happiness. Research has shown that the most best way to guarantee a longer life expectancy is to get and stay married. The bonds of marriage can even change us physically. Scientists conducted a study in which they presented people with two sets of photos: one of individual men and women on their wedding days, and the other of individual men and women who’d been married for 25 years. Participants were then asked to pair the couples up, and they had no problem guessing who had been with whom for 25 years, however, they flunked the attempts to match the newlyweds. The study showed that married couples tend to end up looking like one another, not because they pick partners who resemble themselves but due to years of bonding, which can actually slowly converge the couple’s physical features. The couples who reported being the happiest and sharing their emotions on a daily basis shared a stronger physical similarity. This type of bonding allows one partner to “internalize” the other, and vice versa, and therefore, even the random observer would be able to tell that they’re a couple.

The Age of Empathy Key Idea #5: Denying the natural instinct to nurture can have tragic consequences.

Do you believe you’re completely in control of your own decisions, impulses, and desires? It may be easy to believe that we choose the things that are best for us, which is an outlook encapsulated in a theory called behaviorism. This means that the human mind is a blank slate that we have complete control over throughout life. John Watson, the father of behaviorism, wanted to prove that this is true, and attempted to do so by experimenting on a little boy named Albert. Watson conditioned “Little Albert” to whimper every time a rabbit was near by banging loud steel objects together to produce a horrible noise each time the boy was handed a rabbit. Watson saw this as behaviorism taking precedence over human nature. His devotion to the power of conditioning led him to ignore our inherent biological wiring. Watson was also skeptical of maternal love, and therefore believed that society would thrive more on more structure, rather than nurturing. The attempts he made, though, to practice this philosophy, ended in disaster. Psychologists studied orphaned children kept in cribs separated by white sheets, who received no visual stimulation or bodily contact. The result of this ended with a group of children left resembling zombies with black stares, and unmoving eyes. The children would have been thriving had the idea of behaviorism been correct, but instead, they were near death. Because an important part of development is receiving the nurturing that helps children develop resistance to disease, without this, many of the children actually died. All of this clearly shows that, it’s a human necessity for survival that we receive nurturing, human connection, and empathy from birth. It’s simply a biological imperative. Maternal care is also critical to our development as mammals. The bond we have from birth with our mothers is so important that it continues to affect our lives even through adulthood. For example, in adulthood, when showing our partners affection, we might feed them a piece of food or use similar “baby talk” that our mothers used in our childhoods.

The Age of Empathy Key Idea #6: Empathy is a natural instinct because it’s important to ensuring survival.

Most people have lent someone a helping hand at some point in their lives, and they probably didn’t need to be conditioned to do so. As both history and biology show, our sense of empathy and cooperation is a natural instinct we have. After all, humans simply wouldn’t have survived if our natural disposition was competition and insensitivity. This is especially true when it comes to motherhood and parenting, where empathy is necessary. Parents have developed a natural sensitivity to the concerns of their children through evolution over the course of 200 million years, because parents have a natural disposition to want to keep their children healthy and safe. If a child’s parents are cold and uncaring, the chances of a helpless baby surviving aren’t very good, so this sense of empathy is really crucial to general health and survival. Therefore, empathy is a big influencer on why humans are where they are today. However, at the same time, empathy is something we have little control over. Swedish psychologist Ulf Dimberg conducted an experiment to test how participants would react to images of happy versus sad faces in his 1990’s studies of involuntary empathy. As you might expect, people frowned at angry images and smiled at the content ones, however, it may come as a surprise that people reacted the same ways when the pictures were flashed on the screen too quickly for them to consciously register them. So, even when the participants couldn’t consciously react to the images, they still unconsciously responded the same way. Other than psychopaths, who, by definition are incapable of feeling empathy, no one is emotionally incapable of feeling for the plight of someone else’s situation. So, the next time someone tries to tell you that human nature is evil at its core, hopefully you’ll be able to prove them wrong! In Review: The Age of Empathy Book Summary The key message in this book: Displaying empathy and care for other humans is natural human instinct. Society tries to tell us that humans tend to lean toward the negative, but biology and science display that living in peace and helping one another are traits we inherently have. The reality that ends up showing its face is what we choose to see and focus on in ourselves.