Summary of The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal

It is hard to judge human nature. Are we programmed more to be loving and nurturing or are we hardwired to seek out power and prestige? With the way things are in the world, it often seems like it is most likely the latter. But do humans seriously act selfishly for personal gain? Surely it must be more complex than that. 

What if the driving factor behind all our actions is actually empathy? Every decision behind going to war or getting a promotion is not done to gain the upper hand but instead deeply rooted in the need to provide a better world for everyone. As much as this seems like the less likely option, it could very well be the truth that you didn’t know that you needed to hear.

In this book summary readers will discover: 

  • Why human nature is thought to be selfish
  • War is not always on our minds
  • Herd Instinct
  • Natural instincts cannot be denied without consequences

Key lesson one: Why human nature is thought to be selfish

Human nature is often portrayed as selfish and that has only helped spread the idea further making it seem like the cultural norm. There have been countless movies about power-hungry people, filled with greed and the need for more power. But it runs even deeper than that. Social Darwinism was a concept introduced in the nineteenth century by Herbert Spencer. He used it to describe the survival of the fittest notion regarding the “haves” and “have nots”. Social Darwinism goes on to further describe how those who gain success should not help those who are struggling as it would only pull them away from their success. 

This concept is seen every day in the business world. Even John D. Rockefeller Jr. famously said that his expansion of business was “merely the working out of a law of nature”. He didn’t care about the small businesses in his way. Then there was ENRON, the energy company hellbent on leading with fear and greed. It was a brutal company to work for famous for its rank and yank system whereby employees were ranked by the managers. Whoever got a five-point rank was fired. In this way, 20 per cent of ENRON’s employees were fired annually. ENRON also cause artificial blackouts without thinking of the implications it would have on hospitals, elevators and transportation. 

These practices never last long though. ENRON eventually collapsed in 2001 and still serves as a lesson to the business world. However, it can easily be seen why human nature is seen as selfish when incidents like these occur which reinforce the idea. But the simple truth is that this is a misconception that gets wrongfully reiterated time and time again.

Key lesson two: War is not always on our minds

Despite what the history books and news show, times of war is not as prevalent as it would seem. Winston Churchill even believed that humans lived in brief periods of peace between incessant wars. Taking a closer look, however, it is obvious that the truth lies in the opposite. Human history contains long periods of peace which is periodically disrupted by war. 

Many acts thought to be in preparation for was eventually turned out to be misunderstood stories no doubt passed on incorrectly. The walls of Jericho, for example, the ones mentioned in the bible were thought to be built as a defensive structure is one of the earliest structures showing evidence of human warfare. However, recent research has shown that the walls were likely not defensive structures but protective structures against floods and mudflow. 

The fact that our ancestors lived in little communities far away from others also means that the likelihood of conflict was very slim. Our hunter-gatherer origins also hint at fairly infrequent meetings with others. So, if any conflict did occur, it would have been very brief periods between an otherwise peaceful existence. 

Even in modern times, every instance of war and violence did not come about because humans are by nature violent and aggressive. If anything, there is no desire for bloodshed amongst soldiers. Their participation is most likely an instinctual response to be a part of something bigger and to follow those who they believe in.

Key lesson three: Herd Instinct

Even hear of unconscious synchrony? It is just another term for herd instinct and refers to the inclination of people and animals to behave or think like the majority. It is the sense of interconnectedness that exists between all lifeforms and the very reason why yawning is contagious.

Herd instinct has evolved as an important survival mechanism. It is what makes birds flock together to fly in formation and other animals move together when migrating. When a herd sticks together their chances of survival are much greater. It is instinctual coordination. The other advantage of moving in sync with others is that it allows bonds to form. It takes on many subtle forms in human nature. Mimicry, for example, might manifest when out on a date. You see couples who react to each other or take a sip of their drinks at the same time. It also comes into play when the waiter repeats your order – you feel that the service is better because he repeats the correct order and you know you are in sync. 

It is also worth remembering that humans are highly dependent on one another. No matter how much some introverts may argue, humans need each other emotionally and physically. Staying alone for long periods of time often leads to depression. Even inmates who are put into solitary confinement are known to cause trouble just so that they get to interact with the guards. But companionship is not only good for your mental wellbeing, studies have shown that it can be the most effective way to extend your life expectancy. Couples who are happily married tend to live longer and they also tend to become more like one another. Have you ever considered how couples who have been together for a long time tend to look the same? The physical similarity of couples is actually strongest amongst couples who are happy and who share their emotions with each other often. It is a form of bonding that makes their association with each other clear due to their physical similarities.

Key lesson four: Natural instincts cannot be denied without consequences

There is this theory called behaviourism which was introduced by John Watson. Watson believed that the human mind was essentially a blank slate and we choose what is best for us. He conducted experiments using a young child named Albert to prove his theory. Every time Watson would hand Albert a rabbit, he would bang steel objects together loudly. This led Albert to whimper every time he saw a rabbit in the future. As Watson was able to condition Albert, he saw it as a triumph of behaviourism.

However, Watson’s ideas were difficult to put into practice. Psychologists later tried to try the idea of behaviourism on infants. They kept orphaned children in crips separated by white sheets. These children received no visual stimulation or physical contact which resulted in them having very bleak demeanours. They were described as zombies with unmoving eyes. If the theory of behaviourism was correct, these children should have been thriving in their isolated state but instead, their lack of nurture left them almost dead. Nurturing is more than just physical contact. It actually builds a baby’s immunity. From the moment a child is born, nurturing is a biological necessity. Mammals need maternal care and this initial nurturing is what we carry with us throughout our lives. It’s the same nurturing instinct that comes into play when we feed our partners or speak to them using “baby-talk”. 

Nurturing plays a bigger part in our lives that we could ever know and without it, our lives would be a poor shadow of what it is now. As we get older, empathy also comes into play as we feel the need to help others in need. And without doubt, there would have been times when you would have also needed a helping hand. Our biology is wired to cooperate with others and ensure their survival. None of us would be here if we had a natural competitive instinct. Instead, from birth, our parents have a natural instinct to our needs and know that they need to keep us healthy and safe. We all know of the unfortunate stories of kids being neglected by parents who do not care for them. Their outlook on life is pretty bleak if they even survive this neglect in their early years. 

Empathy is a crucial part of human life with almost everyone unconsciously responding to other’s feelings. In fact, the only people incapable of feeling empathy are psychopaths. Therefore we can conclude that human nature is not selfish, it is in fact nurturing and empathic. The more we accept this fact, the more it can get rid of the notion that humans do not care about one another.

The key takeaway from The Age of Empathy is:

Human nature is fundamentally good, nurturing and empathic. However, due to the constant perpetuation of human nature being selfish, most people find it hard to believe in empathy. The business world continuously sports the image of power and greed and this only further drives people to believe the negatives of human nature. But the closer we look at humans, our evolution and our need for survival and companionship, we begin to understand that human nature is inherently good. Nurturing is needed from birth to instil in us the empathy needed for us to grow and contribute, helping others along the way. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Age of Empathy:

What we choose to believe will ultimately become our reality. So, instead of believing that human nature is selfish, start seeing the positives. Observe the impact nurturing has on the life of a child, or yourself and try to spread that to others. If other people start to see the good in human nature, they will start to spread their experiences as well. Herd instinct is real. Let’s use it to put some good in the world.

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