Empathy toward the Outgroup

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Empathy toward the Outgroup

How do you feel when you learn someone is ill, when you see an athlete hurt during a contest, or when you see a news story of someone suffering? Frequently, people will recognize the emotional experiences of others, experience similar emotions themselves, and might even be motivated to take steps to alleviate the other person’s pain. These are reflective of empathy and are core to a functioning society.

Interestingly, our ability to express empathy likely depends on how similar the other person is to us. Mina Cikara, of MIT, and her colleagues, recently explored these dynamics.

The researchers noted that “people are less likely to detect and attend to another’s suffering when the victim is distant in space, time or kinship or belongs to a different racial, political, or social group.” Even in experiments, where people are knowingly placed in staged groups, participants express less empathy toward people who are different.

But why does this occur? Part of explanation stems from biases we have, even if we do not readily admit to them. That is, we might have an automatic preference for others who are like us, and as a result, we express less positive emotions toward those who are different.

Competition also plays a role. Researchers have shown, for example, that seeing a competitor fail will sometimes elicit pleasure. This process is actually the opposite of empathy, though it is common.

What, then, are we to do? Cikara and colleagues note  that, in some situations, interventions might be successful. Encouraging people to engage in perspective taking or role playing might help. In other cases, working alongside people who are different might prove helpful, especially when the interactions are cooperative in nature. Given the importance of empathy, such interventions are sorely needed.