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Ep 171: Instilling Compassion for Principled Teens

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Episode Summary

Dexter Dias, author of The Ten Types of Human, offers insight on the personality “apps” that drive human behavior. Plus, how to instill compassion and help your teen avoid burning out their kindness!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When we’re bombarded with some of the terrifying stuff on the news these days, we might find ourselves wishing there were more compassionate people in the world. Luckily, If we can raise the next generation to be considerate, kind and morally educated, we might be able to steer our society in a better direction. That being said, it’s no easy task to teach teenagers to practice empathy!

This week, we’re talking all about compassion–how we can help teens develop it, and why they’re often at risk of losing it. To get to the bottom of what it really means to be compassionate, we’re diving deep into the psychology and evolutionary development that defines our empathetic impulses. By doing this, we can go beyond just telling teens to be nice; we can teach them to think critically about their own social behavior.

We’re welcoming Dexter Dias to the show this week! Dexter is a barrister (the British version of a lawyer), involved in some of the most prominent human rights cases in recent years. He’s facing issues like terrorism, murder, crimes against humanity and more. Dexter’s a prize winning scholar of Cambridge university, a visiting researcher at Harvard and has written reports to the United Nations! All of this work defending vulnerable people as well as studying human behavior has taught him a thing or two about the ways we empathize with one another.

In our interview, Dexter and I are talking about how humans can sometimes burn out when they’re expressing compassion left and right–and how you can teach yourself and your teen to avoid this problem. Plus, we’re discussing evolutionary development to understand why we sometimes let our compassion be overridden by our need to fit in.

The Challenges of Being Compassionate

Although we know our teens are good people, actually practicing compassion every day can be pretty tough for their growing minds. As you may recall, the halls of high school can be vicious…meaning that teens aren’t always as nice to their peers as they could be. Dexter explains in the episode that the socially vicious behavior of adolescents is largely a result of unconscious activity in their minds, triggered by cues they may not even be aware of. 

In fact, our behavior is so controlled by these subconscious impulses that we don’t even need to be able to see others to feel triggered by them. Dexter and I discussed research featuring blind patients which demonstrated that our neural systems are able to pick up aspects of human conduct and behavior without even viewing them. Dexter and I chat more about the implications of this fascinating study in the episode!

Dexter describes one of these subconscious impulses–the fear of ostracism–as one the driving forces of human behavior….especially teenage behavior! Humans have a deep need to belong, explains Dexter, a need which developed as we evolved through time. When our ancestors were faced with danger, being part of a group gave them a better chance at survival. Nowadays, this survival technique still lingers, and is particularly strong among teenagers still finding their way. 

But is it really that big of a deal if your teen finds themselves excluded from the lunch table? Yes, according to Dexter! He explains that the pain caused by rejection is just as strong as physical pain, because it comes from the same neural activity. Not to mention that In our modern world social media causes teens to be conscious of their social standing 24 hours a day. The anxiety about fitting in follows them home from school, and is present in every like and follower they recieve–or don’t receive.

This intense desire to fit in with our peers can cause people to do some frankly terrible things. As a human rights lawyer, Dexter sees the connection between some of the world’s worst atrocities and our fear of ostracism. If we’re going to be compassionate and teach our kids to do the same, Dexter says we’ll have to overcome this deeply rooted need for approval from others. In the episode, he explains that the focus needs to shift from changing the attitude of individuals to really transforming our culture as a whole.

Although this fear of not belonging is one of the greatest risks to our compassion, there are others. Dexter explains that we can often become emotionally overwhelmed, causing our compassion to suffer. But don’t fret, there are solutions!

Handling Compassion Overload

When we open ourselves up to being compassionate to others, we can sometimes find ourselves facing a lot of stress. Dexter explains how this is often a problem for him in his work as a human rights lawyer. Although he wants to help those in need, it can be tough seeing the injustices of the world and feeling like you’re up against the impossible. Front line workers like social workers, nurses and aids often find themselves the most at risk of this feeling, but it can happen to any of us. Something as simple as volunteering at a food bank can cause this overwhelming stress at the state of the world!

Dexter warns that this feeling can lead to serious burn out if not treated or prevented. To keep compassionate teens from losing steam, he explains that they’ve sometimes got to put themelves first. Although it might seem contradictory, taking care of ourselves is the only way we’ll have the energy to care for others! Dexter recommends reflecting and practicing discipline to make sure you and your teen are watching our own health and happiness along with the wellbeing of others.

In the episode, Dexter and I also talk about how we can work on being aware of the injustices of the world without becoming so sad or angry that we’re incapable of helping the vulnerable. He and I discussed a study in which participants were exposed to disturbing images of those in need. By measuring their reactions, Dexter explains that the participants were found to have serious physiological distress, simply as a result of viewing suffering. 

But when prompted to think critically about how they could improve the situation they saw on screen, they were found to experience the effects at a lower frequency. By changing their perspective to one of productivity and action, they were able to increase their capacity  for compassion. In our interview, Dexter and I talk more about how we can bring this perspective into everyday life.

Evolutionarily, humans developed to stick in small groups, meaning our compassion can only stretch so far before it suffers. As we’ve developed as a species, we’ve mostly lived in small groups, far apart from one another–much different from our modern urban, city-dwelling way of life. This means that in our everyday life, our ability to be compassionate is tested by interacting with so many people! In the episode, Dexter explains how one hundred and fifty is the magical number of people we can hold compassion for. Any more than that and we get overwhelmed!

One way of combating this is keeping compassion local, Dexter explains. Many people find themselves much more inclined to help those in their own communities rather than a greater global cause, and Dexter believes this is a good place to start. If we can extend this compassion and model it for our teens, we can make the world a better place for them to grow up in.

In the Episode…

Sitting down and talking to Dexter about human nature was so illuminating. On top of the ideas discussed above, we touch on:

  • How we can reconceptualize the human mind
  • What to tell a young person looking for a purpose
  • Why our brains are like smartphones with apps
  • What we can learn about assimilation from fish

If you enjoyed listening, you can find Dexter on Twitter at @DexterDiasQC or on LinkedIn! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Remind your teen of the universality and importance of compassion:

“Compassion is something we all have got and can develop and strengthen and we can use it to make a difference in the world for good. And we can protect ourselves even in some of these difficult situations, asking ourselves the question, ‘What can I do to make things even a little bit better?’”

-Dexter Dias
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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I read this book of yours, “The Ten Types of Human” and you spent a lot of time on this book and this thing is so comprehensive, deals with such deep matters of the human psyche, and your research. You’ve been traveling all over and finding interesting stories, and collecting really, really a lot of interesting stuff. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where this came from or what set you off on this journey and what was the impetus?

Dexter: Sure. Andy, thanks so much for inviting me on firstly. Yeah, the book is quite big. My mother said, “Next time, write a short book, will you?” She actually is in her 80’s now, she said, “It hurts my hand to hold the book and read it.” But anyway, well, you know what? It didn’t start as a book. That’s the first thing to say.

Dexter: So I’m essentially a lawyer. I’m a human rights lawyer in the UK. And I was on a research sabbatical in the states, in Boston at Harvard and my research, I’m very interested in this interface between human rights, which is my field, and human psychology. So I was actually at the Department of Psychology at Harvard, the famous Department of Psychology, and it’s a very cool place. And while I was doing my research, I had a whiteboard in my room on the 14th floor overlooking Harvard yard, all the way to Boston and the Atlantic Ocean, fantastic view.

Dexter: And one evening, I was just writing out the particular types of interests, the types of human behaviors or people that I’ve encountered in the research so far. And I’ve started writing them out. And then I looked at it, stood back and there were 10 types. I thought, “My goodness, so this is about 10 types of human.” And the basic premises grounded in a particularly, I think, fascinating re conceptualization of what the human brain is, the human mind, which is what the brain does, and therefore what or who we are.

Dexter: The old conception, Andy, is that, do you remember those old black and white films where you make a call, it goes to a sexual operator, she’ll put a plug in and then she’ll connect you to somebody else?

Andy: Yeah.

Dexter: And that’s what we thought the three and a half pounds of brain matter between our ears was, basically. It was that a central operating system. The modern conception of it is very different and it’s much more like what I’m going to show you, because this is a podcast no one can see, but I’m going to show Andy my iPhone. And so the modern view of the brain is that in fact, it’s much more like a smartphone with different apps. And each app is a evolutionarily evolved set of functions and procedures and behaviors that has given us a behavioral and survival advantage.

Dexter: And so another way to look at the 10 types of human is at a series of apps that have actually evolved to give us certain advantages in order to survive, basically. So, that’s the sort of premise of it. It gets kind of a bit more interesting than that. Once you start to put the people into the picture.

Andy: Okay. So it’s not necessarily that there’s like, you’re going to be putting people into categories and you’re going to say, “Oh, that person, they’re type number six.” And, “That person they’re type number nine.” But it’s that we all have all 10 of these apps installed on our iOS of our mind. And at times we activate all of them in different circumstances or situations?

Dexter: Or they are activated. It’s easy because the thing about it is that it’s not necessarily a volitional thing. It’s not about–

Andy: Okay, activate number four now. No.

Dexter: There is a film like where you’ve got these little people in your head and they pull levers or start the false crocodile tears. We need to get out of this problem, all of this kind of stuff. No, it’s much more that certain cues in the situation, this is a lot to do with situational so social psychology, how are you going to behave? What are you going to do? And very often it’s not something you are conscious of. It’s something that will happen. And then there are certain behavioral roots and practices that stem from that.

Dexter: And so, I suppose if we think about, just to kind of make it concrete what we’re talking about, one of the things that I was looking at at Harvard at this particular time, I was very interested, in this terrible practice called female genital mutilation, FGM. I couldn’t understand how is it that parents who love their children, love their daughters, could send them to be cut? Why would that happen? The parents who send their girls, their daughters, for cutting are not necessarily monstrous parents at all.

Andy: No, of course not. Yeah.

Dexter: And so what you’ve got, I think, so how do we critique that? How are we going to get a deeper understanding of what’s happening? And I think if you look at two of the types that I deal with in the book, the two types they’re in conflict. On the one hand, you’ve got the nurturer and the nurturer is this evolved adaptive mechanism, which means that we ridiculously over prioritize our own flesh and blood, which in fact is prioritizing our own genetic material.

Dexter: So you’ve got these parents who want to look after and nurture and bring up the children. And yet, on the other hand, you have got the parents who are deliberately inflicting almost unimaginable pain on their children.

Dexter: And that’s because there is a tension between what do we call the nurturer and another of these modules, which I call, the ostracizer. And human beings live in this, particularly since we evolved as a deeply complex social animals, when our ancestors left the thick verdant rainforests of Central Africa, moved out east into the Savannahs, and moving into the open Savannahs, very perilous existence.

Dexter: In order to survive they’ve adapted to a different type of social organization, which is an incredibly socially complex one where there was increasing cooperation. Since that time we have had this really interesting human dilemma, part of the human condition. On the one hand, we have a deep need to belong. And that’s why things like being unfollowed or unliked on social media hurts. It actually does. It does hurt.

Dexter: On the other hand, we need to police that belonging. And we police that belonging using the tool, one of the main tools is ostracism. And so the research we did for the parliamentary inquiry and the main answer that came back to us, which surprised us, was not at adherence to religiously for traditional beliefs or any of those reasons. Most prevalent reason for cutting their daughters was fear of ostracism. That if they didn’t the daughter, and they would, and their kinship group, would be blackballed and excluded from their community.

Dexter: So here you have a tension between two things. Between the nurturer who wants the best and wants to love their child. And you’ve got the ostracizer, which is acutely aware of social exclusion and social policing. And it’s these tensions that I think are really, really interesting.

Andy: Seems like this theme that runs through a lot of the book is horrible things that people do to each other and also really selfless things that people do. And sort of the whole spectrum of really extreme human behaviors and trying to understand what it is that pushes us to do some of these things?

Dexter: Yeah, I think so. In my work, I sit as a judge in some of our higher courts, I see the most awful stuff. I deal with cases of murder, rape, crimes against humanity, genocide, human trafficking, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And people always say to me, “How could you possibly deal with all of that?” And I think one of the reasons is that at exactly the same time as you see these terrible things, which is human beings at their worst, you also see some extraordinary things about human beings at their best who demonstrate acts of courage and selflessness and the human spirit.

Dexter: And I suppose that’s what the heart of the book is about. Trying to understand it, but also trying to name it, what is it? What are these forces that are driving us to do that? And what is trying to protect us, as well from the other side?

Andy: So you also talk about this idea of cognitive load and how once we start worrying, caring, or just plain thinking of other people outside our family and familiar circles, we begin to load up our system and this cognitive load acts as a break on our social ambitions. What does that mean?

Dexter: Well, I think if you look at how we’ve evolved and there’s some interesting thought experience about this, the Princeton philosopher, Peter Singer, Singer realized that if you look at it, from an evolutionary point of view the way in which we live now, if you compare that to the evolution of our species, we have lived in these urban clusters for a nanosecond, a blink of an eye. And what we’ve done really before that is we’ve lived in very small social groups. And those social groups are our spheres and circles of concern.

Dexter: And there’s a very interesting bit of research, someone called, Robin Dunbar, who’s a professor at Oxford, what Dunbar worked out was that basically we can’t really cope with a cognitive load of more than about 150 people. That’s it. That’s our kind of loop. So, he says, “You could have thousands of Facebook or Twitter followers or friends or whatever.” But really it’s about 150 and it’s called the Dunbar number.

Dexter: That’s our real circle of concern. And it’s because our resources are finite. We can’t actually cope with much more. And it’s interesting in my legal practice, I’m a barrister, when I joined, we had, I think I was 22nd or 23rd barrister in our chambers, and we were literally like a family and we all knew each other. And some of us would go on holidays with each other and we’d socialize with each other, et cetera.

Dexter: 25 years later, we’ve now got over 200. I don’t know most of these people now who are in my organization. And once you reach that figure of about a hundred, 150, it becomes impersonal. You just don’t actually have much concern. It’s very difficult to do so.

Dexter: Now, that’s really interesting because what it suggests is that one of the factors that might have affected our lack of ability to support children in these other countries is the fact that we are not useful. We’re not very good at having compassion over social distance.

Andy: Yeah.

Dexter: So that kind of physical distance and social distance actually might impact a level of our ability to give. And that’s why in a lot of character appeals, we have a big annual appeal in the United Kingdom, and all of them learned is if they want people to contribute, yes, you’ve got essential work in the developing world, but they always mix it up with charitable organizations and stories in close to home. So that, that draws people in because that’s what we can compute.

Dexter: So what we are talking about is compassion. Andy, you are asking me about cognitive load and that’s a really, really important subject, which I hadn’t fully appreciated. One of the things that does happen is that people who do work, whether they be doctors, nurses, firemen, police officers on the front line, that is really what social scientists call, emotional labor, and that emotion, we have a finite amount of resources to cope with that.

Dexter: And if we exceed it, and I’ve seen it in fact with some of the people in the book, some of the most incredible people I’ve met ever who work for NGOs, the United Nations, in war zones, in Central Africa who got burnt out, who so threw themselves into their work, trying to save vulnerable people that it just destroyed their ability to cope. And it’s what an American psychologist called, Paul Slovic, calls an utter failure of compassion.

Dexter: So we need to actually really look after ourselves. Yeah, I think at Harvard, they used to call it self compassion? Which I think is a good way to look at it. If you want to help others, you’ve got to actually be quite disciplined to help yourself and protect yourself as well. So, that’s a very interesting concept that I didn’t know about until I started to research the book.

Andy: So walk me through that. Parents, I think, want to raise compassionate kids. We want kids who care, who want to make a difference in the world, who want to contribute in a positive way to their community and beyond. So, how do we teach them self compassion so that they have the capacity to expand their compassion to include others as well?

Dexter: Yeah. I think you mentioned the critical word, it’s how do we teach them? And what is interesting, the old conception of it was that, and there is a little bit of truth in this, don’t get me wrong. That some people are more compassionate and some people are more callous.

Andy: Oh yeah, yeah.

Dexter: We call it here, bleeding heart liberal, which at Harvard, I think they used to call me a soft and fuzzy? I don’t know quite well about that. I never quite knew what it meant. I just knew it wasn’t good. But, you know they’d say–

Andy: “We live in the real world, Dexter.”

Dexter: “Oh, you’re just too soft. You just too compassionate.” Blah, blah, blah. So, that’s what they used to call it. Now what’s interesting is that the modern research into compassion shows that compassion is hard. It’s a discipline, it’s teachable, it’s a skill. And that you can teach people that. One of the things that I think is so interesting from the research is that there was intriguing research work that was done into how it is that we can equip ourselves to have protection against that phenomenon that Paul Slovic talks about, about compassion fatigue, and burnout.

Dexter: And they did some experiments about looking at a video. And the video was footage of the most distressing thing, which was, I don’t know, whether you recollect about 20 years ago, there was a big scandal that there were these orphanages in Romania, in East Europe. And there were, it was a terribly, terribly upsetting situation, where there were hundreds of these children held in these orphanages in dreadful conditions.

Dexter: And as a result of that, there were people in Western Europe, also I think in the United States and Canada, who went and adopted some of these children.

Dexter: And there’s also interesting research about the outcomes for some of those children, but just to focus on the first part of it, in terms of compassion, what the researchers found was that if you looked at those distressing scenes of children, basically in cots and I think chained or tied to beds and cots, it was a terrible situation. If you looked at those most ordinary people are going to have adverse reactions. Your blood pressure is going to go up. The cortisone level is going to go up. You’re going to feel deeply, deeply uncomfortable. And all of this is measurable. And all the stress indicators are there.

Dexter: However, if you look at exactly the same video footage, but instead of just being a passive observer of it, a passive consumer of this human misery, if you go into it with mindset, “What could I do to help? How could I make a difference?”

Andy: Yep.

Dexter: “What is it that I could contribute to this terrible situation?” When you do that, what you are doing is, it’s a form of empathy, which is compassionate. You’re saying, “I actually want to try to make a difference.” And when they measured those people, all the stress indicators were significantly lower.

Dexter: So I’m dealing with a case at the moment, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful case of awful things that have happened to children, which are very upsetting for witnesses and professionals who have been involved in it. But I go into it with a mindset, “How can I make this better? How can I find a solution to try to make things even a little bit less awful?”

Dexter: And that seems to make it, it’s extraordinary, but that is you being shielded by a compassionate approach. And so what parents or teachers or educators could do is to, firstly, instill in those teenagers and children they’re working with and helping and talking with to, that compassion is something we all have got and can develop and strengthen, and we can use it to make a difference in the world for good.

Dexter: And we can protect ourselves, even in some of these difficult situations by asking ourselves the question, “What can I do to make things even a little bit better?”

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About Dexter Dias

Dexter Dias is the author of The Ten Types of Human, which was a Waterstones Book of the Year, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick, and has sold nearly 100,000 copies worldwide.

Dias is one of the most eminent barristers in the UK. A specialist in human rights law, he has spent decades advocating for victims and survivors of institutional power abuses. He is a Deputy High Court Judge, Special Human Rights Adviser to UNICEF, Chair of the Bar’s Equality & Diversity Training Committee, and winner of the SMG award for Advocacy for Racial Justice. In addition to his work as a barrister, Dias is a leading academic researcher on racism. After achieving one of the highest Firsts in two decades at Cambridge University, Dias was elected to a Foundation Scholarship at Jesus College. He was subsequently awarded a Visiting Research Fellowship at Harvard, where he examined the psychological effects of social and racial inequality. His TED Talk, ‘Racism wants your silence’, has been viewed over 1 million times.

Want More The Ten Types of Humans?

Find Dexter on his Twitter and LinkedIn.