In this IMMERSIVE episode, “Empathy,” our goal is to immerse you in a soundscape that evokes empathy and persuade you to block empathy through rationalization. Later, we evoke empathic distress and give you ways to reduce this distress by cultivating something called empathic care.


To preserve this immersive experience, we stripped out a lot of the reporting we did on the science of empathy. Here, you can find out more about the science. We’ll walk you through the episode, and point out materials – interviews we did with researchers, journal articles we dug up, books we read – that let you dig deeper into the research.




SCENE: Harold Mitchell, a homeless man and you’re imagining what he’s thinking and feeling. 


WHAT THIS DOES: This experimental procedure was adapted for the show. It uses text from Daniel Batson’s research and has been shown to induce empathy in those who read the text. We elaborated on it by including audio of a Chicago homeless man (Ronald Davis) so that you could feel empathy before we define it.


FIND OUT MORE: Read Batson’s The Neural Substrate of Human Empathy: Effects of Perspective-taking and Cognitive Appraisal


Watch the full interview with Ronald Davis




SCENE: The guests’ opinions of the homeless during a dinner party.


WHAT THIS DOES: Gives you rationalizations that will help you block empathy. It also argues against rationalizations (but not intensely)


The dinner party characters were given extensive interweaving backstories and core ideas to bring up during this improvised discussion. Many lines of research went into this construction. 


FIND OUT MORE: Listen to our full interview with Dan Batson and Jamil Zaki


Read Behave by Robert Sapolsky


Read Against Empathy by Paul Bloom


See our full list of key ideas during dinner party (cited)





NARRATION: You see, when someone’s in need, you can think of them as a signal that triggers your empathy. And like any signal, you can BLOCK IT… and NOT feel empathy. And we often do it in one of THREE WAYS. 



By number 1,RATIONALIZING, which means coming up with reasons not to feel empathy. This is exactly what most of the people in the dinner party were doing.


Number 2, You can escape… the situation. You can cross the street and that physically stops you from encountering the signal.


Number 3… you can suppress this signal by helping… that would fulfill a person’s need and stop the person from making you feeling empathy. 

SCENE: You’re very close to skiing down the mountain. You feel the powder under your skis. The wind pushes on your cheeks.



FIND OUT MORE: Listen to our full interview with Jamil Zaki and Tor Wager.







NARRATION: And here’s the thing: YOU CAN DEVELOP YOUR EMPATHIC CARE… It’s a skill to overcome your distress.


FIND OUT MORE: Listen to our interview with Tor Wager (starting at 26:00)









IN EXPLANATION: (Roshi Joan Halifax) You can reallocate your attention to a neutral place. For example, like the pressure of your feet on the floor. 


FIND OUT MORE: Listen to our interview where Roshi Joan Halifax shares stories of reallocating her attention just before fainting (starting at 13:00)


Read Roshi Joan Halifax’s book








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Twitter: @qualiapod