Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Becoming Kinder

PSYCH 15N
Prerequisites: 
AP psychology would be helpful, but is not a pre-requisite.

Kindness—the ability to understand each other, the instinct to care for each other, and the desire to help each other—is among our most powerful natural resources.  It supports cooperation, fosters relationships, improves health, and overwrites hatred. Kindness is also challenging, especially in the modern world. More than ever, individuals are isolated, anonymous, and independent: qualities that make it harder to truly see each other and easier to succumb to indifference and even cruelty. As technology mediates more of our interactions and tribal signifiers occupy more of our identity, kindness erodes. And yet we have options. A growing number of social scientists are now experimenting in re-building kindness, using everything from virtual reality to meditation to literature to old-fashioned friendship. Their efforts demonstrate that through directed effort, people can become kinder.

This class will explore the nature of kindness, the challenges modernity has placed in front of it, and the many ways scientists and practitioners are stimulating kindness. Though drawing mainly from psychology, we will tour sociology, conflict resolution, technology, the humanities, and neuroscience as well. The class will also grapple with central questions about human nature—most importantly, to what extent can we change ourselves into the people we’d like to become? Finally, we will meld science with personal narrative and exercises meant to not only explore kindness-building as a research concept, but also as a part of our own lives.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Jamil Zaki

"I have been a professor of Psychology at Stanford for the last six years, and am director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab.  I am fascinated by social behavior and emotion, and especially in empathy—people's ability to share and understand each other's feelings—and prosocial behavior.  I also believe deeply in the broader communication of science to the public, and regularly write about these topics for non-scientific audiences."