What is the focus of your award-winning research?
Emotions are interpersonal. When a person feels something, this often sparks a fundamentally social chain of events. People express themselves to someone else, that other person empathizes (or fails to empathize), and the empathizer does something (or doesn’t), for instance by helping the “empathizee.” I study this sequence, using techniques that span neuroscience, physiology, social psychology, and behavioral economics. Most recently, I’ve become fascinated by two questions within the world of social emotion. First, what motivates people to approach or avoid empathizing with others? Second, what, if anything, does the science of empathy tell us about increasing empathy — especially in cases where it is badly needed but sometimes missing, such as intergroup settings, schools, and medical practices?
How did you develop an interest in this area?
My mother is from Peru, and her mother moved from Peru to live with us when I was about 8 years old. My grandmother was an incredible woman who made the most important decisions of her life based on what would benefit others, not what was best for her. She was the most empathic person I’ve ever known, and living with her made me fascinated with people’s ability for selflessness. A second big influence was reading Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars during high school and realizing that so much of who we are — from color perception to moral judgments — resides somewhere in the 3 pounds of Jell-O inside our skulls. Twenty years later, neuroscience pervades our culture and this insight seems obvious, but at the time it blew my 15-year-old mind. As a college student, I hoped to combine these interests by studying empathy in the brain. My first neuroscience professor told me this was a naïve goal because empathy requires two people and an fMRI scanner can only fit one. That was disappointing at the time, but since then I’ve wised up.
Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
Kevin Ochsner, my graduate advisor, is a mentor like none other. I was severely undercredentialed when I applied to work with him, and to boot wanted to work on something outside of his main line of scholarship. Nonetheless, he took a chance on me and spent hour after hour helping me shape my thinking, science, scholarship, and communication. Those conversations — as well as regular meetings with my wonderful coadvisor, Niall Bolger — were more than discussions about research. They helped me understand and build my identity as a psychological scientist. In the years since, Kevin and Niall continue to be hugely valuable mentors and friends. I will never be able to sufficiently thank them for all they did for me.
A second enormous force in my professional development is Jason Mitchell, my good friend and postdoctoral advisor. For years before we formally collaborated, Jason was an intellectual “big brother” who helped me realize how fun it could be to just sit around wondering about how people work. His curiosity and clarity of mind inspired my thinking countless times.
Many other people — across stages of my career and across universities — have shaped the way I think about empathy, emotion, and science, and have supported me at every turn. In particular, I want to thank Geraldine Downey, Jen Bartz, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Carol Dweck, James Gross, and Ian Gotlib.
What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
One practical thing that has helped me enormously along the way — and which I’d suggest to the next generations of psychological scientists — is cultivating a deep enjoyment of writing. During and after college I hoped to be a novelist, and I churned out hundreds of pages of fiction. The snag in that plan was that I was no good at writing fiction, and so failed with utter totality at that pursuit. But that failure was more than worth it, because now I love writing about psychology, both for our field and for people outside of it. Communication is a psychological phenomenon at its core, and relishing not only doing science but also describing it through writing makes this job more fun for me.
More importantly, though, my or any other individual’s success is truly the result of the people he or she has around them. In addition to my mentors, I now benefit enormously from my own advisees. The best thing about starting my own lab is the incredible energy and fount of ideas these folks provide. Most of the time I just try to stay out of their way! I owe an enormous debt to all of them. In addition to “vertical” colleagues such as advisors and advisees, my “lateral” colleagues and friends have been enormously supportive, inspiring, and fun partners in crime as we’ve enjoyed the highs and wrestled with the lows that come with working in this field. I’d especially like to thank Lauren Atlas, Adam Waytz, Diana Tamir, Ethan Kross, Yarrow Dunham, Kateri McRae, Lexi Suppes, Jared Van Snellenberg, Julie Spicer, Joe Moran, June Gruber, Leah Somerville, Mina Cikara, Jon Freeman, Jay Van Bavel, and Kristen Lindquist.
The single biggest reason for my success, however, is the unflinching support of my wife, Landon Fuhrman Zaki. A wonderful clinical psychologist, Landon has inspired my thinking at many points. She’s also been there for me through all the sacrifice and struggle that come with being an academic, and has lent me her strength more times than I can remember.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
Two things shook me (in a good way) after I learned about this award. The first is the list of past recipients. These amazing scientists have inspired me many, many times, and sharing this recognition with them makes me happy beyond words. The second is the life and legacy of Janet Taylor Spence herself. In addition to pioneering research, Spence ran into — and broke down — gender barriers in science time and time again. The tenacity, fearlessness, and force of will reflected in her career are a model for not just how to do science, but also for how to be a scientist. To be associated with her is truly an honor.