Anti-Semitism and the Pandemic of Intolerance

New models of prejudice help explain why some stereotypes elicit violence.

Posted Nov 05, 2018

In the 1990s, the world was stunned by a throwback to primitive tribal mentalities: divisions between groups, long healed, suddenly split open and erupted into brutal wars: the Yugoslav Wars, the First Chechen War, the Rwandan Civil War, and the War in Darfur were all waged with genocidal intent.   With the recent murders in Pittsburgh, we again witnessed violence against a group which, in the US, had felt relatively safe from attack; yet the people in the Temple of Life synagogue re-heard that terrible roar as the murderer shouted, “All Jews must die!” 

The cruelties that can be inflicted under the aegis of “them” versus “us” needs to be understood by psychologists, but progress is slow, partly because group differences (“in groups” and “out groups”, “them” and “us”) fluctuate, and the fundamental basis of groupings – what makes someone different from someone else – is often fabricated.  

Powerful and fundamental though our group identity seems, it is actually fluid and arbitrary. At about the same time the new genocidal wars were raging, three graduate students at the University of Kansas – Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski and Jeff Greenberg – observed that notions of “my group” morphed according to where people were and what they were doing.  As people go here and there, they mix with others and are likely to identify themselves as part of the neighborhood community.  When they go to church or synagogue or to the mosque, they identify with others on the basis of their religion.  When they watch a baseball game, their sense of group belonging changes again according to which team they support.  In other contexts, one’s occupation or the country their parents’ might define “us” versus “them.”  Even when we think belonging to a certain group is crucial to who we are, the importance fluctuates with the context.

Any group identity can gel quickly, and when it does, there is love and loyalty and praise for “us,” and suspicion, fear, and readiness to blame “them.” Empathy is also shaped by our sense of group. If we see our partner or our child receive a painful shock, our empathic response is likely to be much stronger than if we see a stranger in the same circumstances. [1] We are also likely to react more strongly to the pain of someone in our own group than we do when we hear about the suffering of someone in a distant group.  But when it comes to strangers, our capacity for empathy is varied.  When we think someone is “like us,” we feel more empathy.  In one study, a group of Chinese individuals and a group of Caucasians watched a video of someone’s face being pierced with a needle; the participants responded more robustly when the person they were watching shared their ethnicity. [2] Similar results were found when the participants were Caucasian and African American. [3] But even though empathy was reduced for “outsiders,” it was still active. There was some empathy with another’s pain, regardless of ethnicity.  And if an “outsider” displayed positive qualities, such as helpfulness and co-operation, then empathy increased. [4]

Empathy and actions are linked. When empathy is switched on, we rush to offer aid; we make donations; we volunteer our services.  When empathy is switched off, it seems possible to exult in the suffering and destruction of every last member of the group, however weak or vulnerable. What shuts empathy off, allowing someone to experience not only indifference but also delight in another’s pain, is conflict – and the fear conflict generates. [5]

In last week’s New York Times, Amy Cuddy looked at the psychology of anti-Semitism through a model she developed with Susan Fiske and Peter Glick.  They propose an explanation as to which bias, under what circumstances, triggers violence of the kind that occurred in the Pittsburgh synagogue on the 28th of October 2018.  Whereas some biases might make someone indifferent to a group's suffering, other biases actively inflict suffering, including “exterminatory attacks.”  Cuddy, Fiske, and Glick argue that when a group is stereotyped as being “cold” (neither trustworthy nor sincere) and incompetent (homeless people and drug addicts), it elicits disdain and ostracism, but not violence; when a group is stereotyped as cold and competent, it elicits “envious prejudice”; when times are tough, when resources such as jobs and money and status are scarce, envious prejudices are more likely to erupt into violence.

Many now accept that a deeper understanding of group divisions is required to steer us through a life of increasing diversity.  The two dimensions proposed by Cuddy, Fiske, and Glick – warmth and competence – cast some light on the configurations of prejudice, but leave out the insidious dynamic of prejudice: The more anxious we are about our own lives, the more frightened we are of others who are different from us.  The more frightened we are, the less empathy we have. The less empathy we have, the more readily we harm others.  The more harm a person or group of people inflict on another group, the more likely the violent person (or people) is to justify its actions by constructing a sub-human “them” of the victim group. This is the real danger of prejudice: it escalates, and once it escalates to the point where a group is sub-human, there is no limit to the harm others are willing to inflict on that group.


1. Singer, T. Seymour, B., O'Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R.,  Frith, C. (2004) Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science 303, 1157–1162.

 2. Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. J. Neurosci. 29, 8525–8529.

3. Avenanti, A., Sirigu, A., Aglioti, S.M.A. (2010). Racial bias reduces empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-race pain. Curr. Biol. 20, 1018–1022.

4. Singer, T. Seymour, B., O'Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R.,  Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature 439, 466–469.

Cikara, M., Brunei, W., Bavel, J.J., Saxe, R. (2014). Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses. Journal of experimental social psychology. 55. 110-125.