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How Bias Clouds the Ability to Empathize

Emotional self-awareness and understanding of bias are foundational to empathy.

Key points

  • Discussions of empathy that fail to address self-awareness and the impact of unchecked biases lack necessary foundation.
  • There is a big difference between fitting in and belonging.
  • Empathy leads to fairness.

Is it possible to effectively address the topic of empathy without discussing emotional self-awareness and bias?

Left unchecked, biases cause people to constrict and distort the information they receive, understand, and consider. Therefore, unchecked biases prevent people from properly understanding another person’s thoughts and feelings, the very essence of empathy.

It’s well known, understood, and accepted that people tend to be drawn to those they perceive as members of their own tribe – those who they believe look, act, and think as they do. In fact, Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, found that some terrorists possess higher than average levels of empathy; however, their empathy is limited to those who look, think and act as they do.

Affinity Fraud

That is also why, when it comes to business networking and development, people are advised to showcase their commonalities, rather than differences. The more that people believe they have in common with each other, the easier it is to develop a sense of trust and safety. People also tend to do business with and refer business to those they know, like, and trust.

This is the foundation for what is known as “affinity fraud,” and which is described by the Securities and Exchange Commission as follows:

Affinity fraud refers to investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly, or professional groups. The fraudsters who promote affinity scams frequently are - or pretend to be - members of the group…. These scams exploit the trust and friendship that exist in groups of people who have something in common.

Perception matters and it may be real, exaggerated or completely imagined, as is conveyed in the SEC’s description of “affinity fraud.” Outside of fraud, what this means, in practical terms, is that people tend to try and fit in where they have reason to believe that they will not be accepted and belong being their authentic selves.

Those who are perceived as insiders tend to be far more influential than those perceived as outsiders. The thing about being an insider and having influence over those who perceive you as a member of their tribe is that you are only an insider for as long as those on the inside perceive you as an insider.

Insiders tend to have influence – outsiders don’t. When people are receptive to someone's influence, they focus on their similarities rather than their differences. If a person wants to gain influence, they focus on their similarities and do that which they deem necessary to try and fit in, to the extent possible.

When members of communities do not want an insider’s influence, they tend to do that which causes such people to be perceived as outsiders. Once the focus is no longer on the similarities, the differences - even differences which were known all along - are used to divide and conquer, shoot the messenger, as it is often called.

Members of disliked groups have become wildly successful and their success fueled by people who dislike the groups of which they are members, as long as they do that which is required for them to fit in by living or portraying to live an inauthentic life, which often also includes basically throwing their group and members of their group under the bus, so to speak.

The Importance of Self-Awareness

If we are unaware of our biases, we cannot even hope to keep them in check. And, even when we are aware or become aware of them, we must possess the motivation to try and keep them in check. That motivation can be either external or internal, which involves a desire to be fair. Empathy has been proven to lead to fairness. The problem is that bias is defined as “an unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment.” In other words, in the absence of external motivation to manage one’s biases, the person must possess the internal motivation, which requires empathy. Meanwhile, left unchecked, biases cause people to constrict and distort the information they receive, understand, and consider. The more constricted and distorted the information heard, understood, and considered, the more impaired will be the thinking involved.

This is what is known as a Catch-22. Emotional empathy is an aspect of emotional intelligence, the very foundation of which is emotional self-awareness. Without the requisite emotional self-awareness, a person cannot hope to develop the empathy needed to try and keep their biases in check.

Discussions about empathy that fail to address emotional self-awareness and bias make little sense and are often harmful because empathy can be limited to those we perceive as members of our own tribe due to our lack of emotional self-awareness and resulting unchecked biases.


Page, K. M. & Nowak, M. A. (2002) Empathy leads to fairness. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 64:1101–16.

Bruneau E. (2016). Understanding the Terrorist Mind. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science, 2016, cer-13-16.

Dear Negotiation Coach: Eliminating Unconscious Biases at Work By Naming Them, Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation Blog (May 13, 2019).