Keltner, Wakeland, ’91, Shake Up ‘Society’ in Isaac Symposium Presentations

April 24, 2018

An ancient philosophical question—explored through modern scientific study—and an alumna’s work transforming the nation’s second-largest city were featured as part of Albion College’s 29th annual Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium. Amy Elaine Wakeland, ’91, delivered the Isaac Alumni Lecture on April 18, while University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner presented the Joseph S. Calvaruso Keynote on April 19.

In between the Lecture and Keynote, more than 100 students presented their scholarship, research and creative activity during morning and afternoon sessions April 19 in four rooms of the Science Complex’s Norris Center.

A speaker behind a podium.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner, an expert in the study of emotion, delivers the 2018 Joseph S. Calvaruso Keynote in Goodrich Chapel.

Are people inherently “good” and can a society truly be “civil?” Keltner says yes, and his Social Interaction Lab at Berkeley both conducts and compiles research to prove it.

From toddlers attempting to help an adult in distress, to soldiers who find themselves incapable of killing the enemy, there is no shortage of proof that empathy is instinctive and difficult to suppress, Keltner says. He cited a study of hunter-gatherer societies across the globe showing that those who rise to leadership tend to have the most civil tendencies.

Practicing the “big four” of kindness, gratitude, empathy and cooperation also yields results for the contemporary workplace, Keltner says.

Among many examples, he noted research involving gratitude. Complimenting a co-worker triggers activity in the brain’s reward center and makes the co-worker perform better—a combination which, in turn, positively enhances the performance and status of the first worker, says Keltner. “Kind acts are actually pathways to power,” he explained.

Even more important, Keltner says, the vagus nerve—the body’s largest nerve bundle—is directly impacted by brain hormones released when people praise others or perform other acts of civility. “The vagus nerve directly impacts your health and well-being, so practicing acts of kindness is physically good for you,” Keltner said.

Keltner also discussed the difficult—but crucial—practice of forgiveness. “Being part of a civil society also requires dealing with conflict and disagreement,” he said. “This data is a cold splash of water in the face, to remind you that, regrettably, we are a bundle of self-interests and there’s going to be conflict.”

Still, Keltner says, even science seems unable to “crack” the effectiveness of civility. Stanford researcher Robert Axelrod looked at the “prisoner’s dilemma”—a game which allows two players to cooperate or compete for rewards. He found that the “tit for tat” strategy—starting the game cooperatively and continuing by mirroring the actions of the other player—was superior to more than a dozen other strategies designed by game theorists.

“Mathematicians, computer scientists designed strategies to defeat this theory, but it wins,” Keltner said. “It’s empathic, it doesn’t lie, it’s forgiving at its core.”

In closing, Keltner noted many challenges to civility, from income inequality to the lack of mental health care to social media. “I have a lot of hope, when I visit places like this, for the future of rebuilding our society,” he said. “I hope I’ve brought some resources for you.”

‘Gender Equity at the Center of Everything’

A speaker behind a podium.

Two nights after presenting the 2018 Elkin R. Isaac Alumni Lecture, Amy Elaine Wakeland, ’91, received the College’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

One night earlier, Wakeland shared some results of her work toward a more equal society in her adopted hometown. A 1993 Rhodes Scholar and current First Lady of Los Angeles, Wakeland has been a powerful force behind the scenes of many L.A. initiatives to improve infrastructure and services, especially for women and girls.

Raised in what was for a time a single-mother household, Wakeland explained how struggles in her own childhood helped sensitize her to issues of employment and inequality that continue to hinder progress and independence for women today. Women are overrepresented in low-wage and part-time employment, while simultaneously, “in 2018, most of the women I work with still walk into meetings where they’re the only woman in the room. … In 2018, sexual harassment in the workplace is still not a thing of the past,” Wakeland said.

With her husband, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Wakeland instigated a “super secret side committee” in the mayor’s office to make sure that women and girls would be “at the table” for every conversation within the administration. “We put gender equity at the center of everything we did.”

The result? “It’s not that hard to find qualified women leaders if you make a point of actually recruiting them,” Wakeland said, noting that since 2013, hundreds of women have taken leadership positions in L.A. “We don’t have a single board or commission that is all-male,” she said.

Even more satisfying, “It took us six months to make all these changes,” Wakeland noted. “There’s a stereotype that says that government is slow and prodding, but if we can shake things up this quickly, businesses, academic institutions, your churches can do this.”

“I work on gender equity not just because it’s an important moral issue,” Wakeland said. “I work on it because research tells us that diverse workforces are more productive and creative. … Elevating women in the workplace is good for our economy.”