- Fear of others who are different blocks empathy for them, but learning to understand others can help people overcome that fear.
- Empathy frees people from the bias of fear that blocks empathy, and in turn opens them to deeper understanding.
- Social empathy uses the knowledge of the history and social conditions of other groups to diminish a person's fear of others.
Empathy is a complex process that includes both unconscious feelings and cognitive processing to feel and understand the emotions and experiences of others, or as we commonly say, “walk in someone else’s shoes.” It is not sympathy, pity, or even compassion; it is neutral. However, what we do with our empathic feelings is not neutral. Research shows that when we have empathic feelings, we engage in prosocial behaviors, typically viewed as helping others.1 That is why we think of empathy in such positive ways—empathy can lead us to do good. But what about when others seem different and strange to us?
Empathy has a built-in bias
Unfortunately, research has shown that it is hard to feel empathy for people who seem different. We are more inclined to experience empathy for people who are like us, and less likely for those who we see as different.2 Because we embrace empathy as a pathway to helping others, it is challenging if empathy is selective.
Why is empathy skewed to be stronger for those who are like us? It may be due in part to our survival instinct. Human beings thrived in collectives, like tribes or clans. Being a member of a strong group helped in the care of our young and thus guaranteed the continuation of our species. If we see others as outsiders who might threaten our well-being, we tend to band together to guard against those outsiders. This is often referred to as “ingroup” and “outgroup” differences.3 Holding this distinction is often called “othering.” Otherness can trigger fear. This fear then hijacks our emotional and cognitive processing.
What happens when our cognitive processing is hijacked?
Fear focuses our attention, and that is good. But it's most useful in small doses. Fear can help us assess for immediate danger and motivate us to take action to avoid or lessen the immediate danger. However, fear over a longer time lessens our abilities to do complex mental processing, which we need for empathy. What happens is that when we feel fear towards others based on their otherness, our ability to try and empathize with them is blocked.
We can change
There is good news about group identity and otherness: It is flexible and can change depending on the context. Barriers of difference can be overcome.4 For example, when people of different races are divided into arbitrary groups that compete against each other in games, think the green team versus the purple team, measured differences in their perceptions of race decline. They don’t see other team members by their race, rather they see them as being part of their own team. Why? Because they are sharing in an equal way and lose that sense of being different. I don’t want to minimize the sense of otherness that exists between groups; it exists and can be very powerful. However, we can learn to close those feelings of difference.
Overcoming our fear of others
How do we overcome the fear of other groups? Here is the irony: It takes empathy to understand others in order to lessen our fears, and at the same time, less fear opens us to empathy. We are frightened of things we do not understand. We are taught who to fear as an outgroup member, and who to trust as an ingroup member. If we learned it one way, we can learn it another way. New learning about others can help us to understand, and thus not be frightened. Taking the perspective of others to understand their lived experiences helps us to break the “us vs. them” barrier.
Understanding context, particularly the historical factors that contributed to a group’s identity, behaviors, and ideologies can diminish barriers and instead build bridges. We can discover that we are not all that different. Rather than seeing different groups, we grow to see all human beings as part of one large all-encompassing group, the ingroup of humanity.
We are not born empathic, but we are born with the skills to become empathic. This is especially true of social empathy, which asks us to try and understand the history and social conditions of other groups by sharing their experiences as if they were our own. It is a skill that is learned. It is not easy, but my years as a teacher convince me that learning how to be socially empathic helps us to better understand those who are different from us, we gain familiarity. When we know more about people who are different, we lose our fears of those differences. When we lose those fears, we are more open to empathy. Thus, empathy can do both: help us to better understand others in order to overcome our fear of them, and free us from the bias of fear that blocks empathy.
1. Batson, C. D., Lishner, D. A., & Stocks, E. L. (2015). The empathy-altruism hypothesis. In D. A. Schroeder & W. G. Graziano (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of prosocial behavior, 259–281. New York: Oxford University Press.
de Waal, F. B. M. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300.
2. Avenanti, A., Sirigu, A., & Aglioti, S. M. (2010). Racial bias reduces empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-race pain. Current Biology, 20 (11), 1018–1022.
Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observations of outgroups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 841–845.
3. Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Intergroup differences in the sharing of emotive states: Neural evidence of an empathy gap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7 (5), 596–603.
Molenberghs, P. (2013). The neuroscience of in-group-bias. Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews, 37, 1530-36.
4. Stevens, F.L. & Abernethy, A.D. (2018). Neuroscience and Racism: The Power of Groups for Overcoming Implicit Bias. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 68, 561-584.
Van Bavel, J. J., & Cunnigham, W. A. (2009). Self-categorization with a novel mixed-race group moderates automatic social and racial biases. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (3), 321–335.