My wife cried when she read the notice on her cell phone this morning that the Supreme Court had recognized the right of gay people to marry. She told me the news in a choking voice, and I promptly cried and choked up as I reflected back the news to her. “So much needless suffering for so many years” she correctly said. I nodded, and appreciated once again my wife’s good heart.

We are doing a lot of that recently. We teared up at the news that Obamacare had withstood that latest round of attack and millions of people would now keep their health insurance. We teared up at the news of the mass murder in Charleston. So much needless suffering.

The content is very different, as are the specific reasons for the emotions, but in a deep way all three show the challenge we face as a human community.

We have a psychological problem in our country and in our world. Superficially it shows up as racism, or homophobia, or disregard of the problems of the poor. I've watched the TV commentators struggle with why. Here is a piece of it: The human mind is wired to respond with empathy, but it is not wired with a sense of common humanity or openness to pain.

All three are needed -- empathy, humanity, openness. Only one is wired in. That is a problem.

Even non-human animals respond with fear when they see fear. Throughout our nervous system mirror neurons respond to the plight of others much as we would if the plight was our own. We suffer when we see suffering. The human brain is especially social. James Coan, a University of Virginia affective neuroscientist has a nice way of saying it: to the human brain, it is we, not me.

There is a simple reason for that. Humans evolved in bands and tribes and the good of the group requires that we be sensitive to the plight of others.

But here is a sick fact: if you see the pain of others, and their group membership is not obvious to you, you can seemingly reduce the pain of seeing others in pain by defining them as “other”. You attack their common humanity.

That is why an empathetic reaction can cause people to increase prejudice and the objectification of others. Gay people are “other.” The black man running across a lawn to avoid being shot in the back by a policeman is “other.” The poor person sitting in an ER is “other.” Not because we don’t care; because we do.

Dehumanization “solves” our wired-in empathy problem because it moves those who suffer out of our group. No tears need to be shed. They are not like us.

As Donald Trump said a few days ago, undocumented immigrants are mostly bad people, criminals, and rapists. They are not like us.

A few years ago a study showed that if you know that the pain of the holocaust continues inside Jewish families to this very day, prejudice against Jews goes up, not down, provided you can’t get away with lying about it. They are “other.” They probably deserved it. In a sick twist, if you can get away with lying, then knowing of Jewish people’s current day pain from the holocaust also leads to claims of lower prejudice. In other words, you then lie to avoid seeing this form of self-defense, perhaps even to yourself.[i]

In the modern world you cannot avoid empathy. Just turn on the TV. The rest is wired in.

But in the interconnected modern world you also simply cannot afford the self-soothing of defining people who suffer as “other.” We cannot have a peaceful, just, and diverse society if black lives do not matter. We cannot afford a healthcare system if we are paying for the routine healthcare of the uninsured through emergency room care. We are all impacted. We are no longer living in small bands and tribes.

This leads to the last process we know is critical: openness. If I am not going to solve the pain of caring by denying common humanity, what am I going to do with it?

Well, how about this: feel it. Sit with it. Learn from it. Do something healthy about it.

Work to reduce racism, poverty, or prejudice against gays.

We have shown in our research that you will not enjoy the company of others, and you will objectify and dehumanize others, if you cannot sit with your own pain.[ii]

The problem is that the modern world is incredibly poor at teaching people to open up. There are flashes of cultural hope (the movie “Inside Out” for example; or the recent interest in mindfulness) but it is being overwhelmed by commercial products used to dampen down feelings: alcohol, materialism, excessive use of pharmaceuticals, you name it.

If it is true that empathy is wired in and is amplified by the modern media, we need to do the two harder things to set this right. 1. increase the sense of common humanity. For example, make sure victims are given a voice. The stories of committed gay couples being forced to live outside law rapidly shifted public opinion. “They” became “us.” Do that.

But what is most needed and is most absent is this: 2. the media and behavioral scientists need to teach people how to sit with pain, and then to do something healthy with it. Teach people to feel more fully and these problems will improve. We have shown that in controlled research.[iii]

Racism, homophobia, and disregard for the poor are just examples of a common set of processes. We have a psychological problem in our country and in our world. We know what it is. It is time to solve it.


[i] Imhoff, R., & Banse, R. (2009). Ongoing victim suffering increases prejudice: The case of secondary anti-Semitism. Psychological Science, 20(12), 1443-1447.

[ii] Vilardaga, R., Estévez, A., Levin, M. E., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). Deictic relational responding, empathy and experiential avoidance as predictors of social anhedonia: Further contributions from relational frame theory. The Psychological Record, 62, 409-432.

Levin, M. E., Luoma, J., Vilardaga, R., Lillis, J., Nobles, R., & Hayes, S. C. (manuscript under review). Examining the role of psychological inflexibility, perspective taking and empathic concern in generalized prejudice.

[iii] Hayes, S. C., Bissett, R., Roget, N., Padilla, M., Kohlenberg, B. S., Fisher, G., Masuda, A., Pistorello, J., Rye, A. K., Berry, K. & Niccolls, R. (2004).  The impact of acceptance and commitment training and multicultural training on the stigmatizing attitudes and professional burnout of substance abuse counselors. Behavior Therapy, 35, 821-835. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80022-4

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