Research on Empathy Inspires Ph.D. Student to Think Outside the “Humanities Box”

April 3, 2018

By Hannah Read, Ph.D. student in Philosophy

Hannah Read

I have always considered myself to fall squarely within the “humanities box.” I was a double major in Literary Studies and Philosophy in college, and I am not proud to admit that I avoided anything with remotely empirical leanings as much as I possibly could. That is, until I started my Ph.D. in Philosophy at Duke.

Being at Duke has completely changed my perception of my interests and capabilities, and my work as part of the How to Ask Questions Bass Connections team has played a key role in bringing about this change.

The How to Ask Questions team is working on ways to address an array of problems associated with political polarization. As a whole, we are interested in how asking the “right” kinds of questions may promote constructive dialogue and outcomes in the face of especially challenging political conversations or disagreements.

My sub-team’s project focuses on empathy and polarization. In particular, we are studying whether particular kinds of empathy may undermine antagonism and hostile feelings associated with polarization, thereby contributing to more respectful and productive dialogues.

Last semester, I worked with undergraduate team members Sarah Sculco and Kyra Rubin on a literature review that considered which kind of empathy is most effective in undermining antagonism and in what ways empathy works to assuage hostility associated with polarization. Our review of empirical findings shows that cognitive empathy, which can be described as “perspective-taking,” or understanding another person’s state of mind from her perspective, is likely the most useful for these purposes. Care, or motivation to understand another person, is also important.

There is, however, an important practical challenge to empathy or care of any kind that becomes especially pressing in cases of polarization. Even in cases where people aren’t polarized, they may be unmotivated to empathize with or care about others, so cases when people are polarized, antagonistic or otherwise hostile toward one another can be worse.

Polarized people are often strongly disinclined to understand and appreciate one another’s views and perspectives precisely because they feel antagonistic or hostile toward one another. So the kind of response that would likely help to undermine feelings that inhibit productive and respectful discussions about difficult political issues are often the most difficult to muster in such cases.         

How to Ask Questions team

This spring, our project is addressing this motivational challenge to cognitive empathy through interventions that could help ease polarization. To that end, we are studying the effects of certain cooperative learning models on motivation and the ability to empathize, even in the face of conflict and deep disagreement. Our ultimate goal is to develop and implement an empathy education program that can be used in schools, and we’re considering how this program could be spread to other contexts in which conflict resolution is of special importance, like peacekeeping training initiatives such as those sponsored by the U.N. Our initial research suggests there are good reasons to be optimistic about benefits of such interventions on empathy development and de-polarization.

On an autobiographical note, I’m especially optimistic about the benefits of cooperative learning environments from my own experience as part of Bass Connections. Collaborating with and learning from a mix of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, all with different backgrounds and sets of expertise, has been incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally.

Indeed, this work as part of the How to Ask Questions team has been enlivening in ways I could not have predicted.

I have always felt a strong desire for hands-on, service-oriented work – work that makes peoples’ lives better and that meets their needs. In fact, it was this desire that led me to pursue a cosmetology degree and work as a hair stylist before, during and after college. There is something immensely satisfying in helping people present images of themselves that feel authentic, boost self-esteem and have the potential to empower them to pursue personal and professional goals with confidence and enthusiasm. I continue to deeply value and enjoy this kind of work.

In the context of academic work, and particularly in the context of traditional philosophy, I have struggled to see how my need for hands-on, service-oriented work might be satisfied – that is, until my work with this team. It has been incredibly rewarding and exciting to see how my philosophical interests in ethics might have practical implications and concrete applications. And it has been even more exciting to see that I myself might play some role in bringing these applications to fruition.

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Photo courtesy of GIST Magazine: Team members discuss how to develop questions through which people can learn to engage thoughtfully and critically with different perspectives.