February 2023

Faculty Scholar Alum Jodi Halpern Brings Message of Empathic Curiosity to Major South American Science Conference

In January, Greenwall Faculty Scholar Alum Jodi Lauren Halpern, MD, PhD, traveled to Santiago, Chile to give a keynote address to the Congreso Futuro titled, “The Power of Empathic Curiosity in a Divided World.”

Congreso Futuro is a preeminent South American science communication event—an initiative of state, academic, media, and industry partners to explore the intersection of technology, science, and ethics. The audience, according to estimates provided by event organizers, numbered in the millions across various media platforms, and comprised scientists, policymakers, and members of the public with an interest in the implications of scientific research and discovery on politics and culture. This audience included Chilean president Gabriel Boric, with whom Prof. Halpern met to discuss early-career ethics training for scientists and physicians.

Bookending the event were two keynote speeches, the first by filmmaker Werner Herzog, and the second by Prof. Halpern. The talk was on the concept of empathic curiosity, which Prof. Halpern describes as a “cognitive pathway…that is resilient during conflict” and calls upon people—particularly those in conflict when “sympathy and compassion evaporate”—to bridge divides by becoming genuinely interested in the origin of another’s emotional position. According to Prof. Halpern, this “cognitive interdependence” is a natural impulse: “When people make no sense to us, we are built to become curious.”

In her talk, Prof. Halpern described the application of empathic curiosity principles in navigating post-conflict reconstruction in war-torn former Yugoslavia in 2003, when she studied social reconciliation among hostile groups. The concept also has ample application in bioethics, as empathic curiosity, for example, can break down the sometimes-fraught relationship between healthcare providers and patients. Prof. Halpern first recognized this potential, she said, describing a violent encounter between a nurse and a patient’s caretaker that was defused in part by an effort to meaningfully understand the emotional position of the caretaker. In The Washington Post last year, Prof. Halpern and co-author Juli Fraga argued that empathic curiosity can reduce stress for healthcare workers by “trying to understand another person’s world from the inside out…. Exercising this type of empathy creates space for the patient and doctor to think together and discover novel ways to improve care.”

Prof. Halpern describes the exploration of empathic curiosity as her “life’s work” at the intersection of psychiatry and philosophy. During her time as a Greenwall Faculty Scholar (Class of 2008), she was able to deepen her research by immersing herself in the field of behavioral economics/affective forecasting. Since then, she has brought her focus on emotions and ethics to fields including AI and gene editing with ongoing inspiration from “the courageous community” of other Faculty Scholars. She is currently working on political divides, including advising the Mayor of Los Angeles on a COVID-19 memorial listening process, appearing on CBS to discuss how empathy can help “heal a divided nation,” and speaking with Canadian media to address empathy and the social division that arose over the course of the pandemic.

Prof. Halpern’s related work includes: