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What a Lack of Social Empathy Looks Like

Rallying for "us versus them" gives us a clear picture of an empathy deficit.

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

This past weekend was the one year anniversary of the rallies and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. To commemorate the event, last years’ organizers held an anniversary gathering, this time in Washington, D.C. across from the White House. Although by numbers it was miniscule compared to last year, it shows us how much social empathy matters, and more importantly, how much a lack of social empathy matters.

Last year on August 12th, groups proclaiming their allegiance to white supremacy chose to hold a public rally in support of keeping monuments that depict leaders of the Confederate army. Public monuments are more than just pieces of carved stone, they represent honor that is bestowed upon those who are depicted by those monuments. So the rally was meant as more than just a referendum on keeping the monuments in place, it was a statement of honoring the legacy of white supremacy. Lest you think this is hyperbolic, the flyers advertising the rally proclaimed it as a “pivotal moment for the pro-white movement in America” to “end Jewish influence in America” and exclaiming “they will not replace us,” meaning people who are not white. Marchers carried Confederate flags, wore Ku Klux Klan robes, and were adorned with Nazi swastikas. The message was unmistakable. The vitriol was so heated that a young woman was killed. The organizers of the rally put on full display a depressing show of bitter tribalism and a complete lack of social empathy—a lack of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding of different groups. Why?

It is impossible to distill down to a simple answer why so many are filled with rage and hate at people who they view as different. But we do know from solid research that there are a number of variables that contribute to such hatred of others. One piece that contributes to such hatred is a lack of empathy.

A lack of empathy between groups typically involves a lack of recognition that others who are different from you are equal human beings. They are “others” and we engage in efforts at differentiating between “us and them.” We keep the distance between groups by developing explanations for why our disdain of others is legitimate.

Lower levels of empathy for those we perceive as “them” are seen in measured brain activity. We have higher levels of empathic understanding for people who are similar to us.1 We tend to have a preference for empathy towards fellow group members.2 But it’s important to know that there is a learned aspect to this difference in empathy. Research comparing people who score high on racial bias compared to people who don’t found that while both groups had lower levels of empathy for members of groups who are different, those with racial bias had much lower levels of empathy.3 In fact, in other research, those with high levels of racial bias showed less brain activity altogether—they were less attentive to disliked groups.4

Lower levels of empathy for “them” seem to be learned, and the brain cognition involved is actually very malleable.5 The key is whether we perceive someone as friend or foe. If we are taught that the “other” is dangerous and threatening to our survival, then empathy will be blocked. But if we are taught that we share characteristics, that we are all human beings with similar needs, desires, goals, and feelings, then empathy will be enhanced. This is where social empathy becomes so important. In order to understand different groups, we need to consider history and context and what life is like for people who belong to different groups. We need to walk in their shoes, imagine and experience what life is like for those who are different. This is social empathy. Through learning to be socially empathic, we can be taught about what we share as human beings and learn not to fear others.

Those who organized those rallies have no interest in social empathy. They do not want to know about people who appear to not be like them. They do not want to discover ways that we share humanity or how similar our life dreams are. Unfortunately, we have seen the consequences of such separation and fear of others; we see a lack of social empathy. Embracing the symbols of Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan tell us all we need to know about how far a lack of social empathy can go. Genocide, slavery, lynching, these are the worst examples of a lack of social empathy.

But there was another part of these rallies that defies such a lack of social empathy, and in fact shows how much we do care about others. The thousands of people who marched in Charlottesville last year and in Washington, D.C. this year were promoting understanding of others. They showed that social empathy can be learned, it can be shared. Thanks to the thousands who were there to celebrate our shared humanity, we saw what social empathy looks like too.


1. Eres, R. & Molenberghs, P. (2013). The influence of group membership on the neural correlates involved in empathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7 (article 176), pp. 1-6.

2. O’Brien, E. & Ellsworth, P.C. (2012). More than skin deep: Visceral states are not projected onto dissimilar others. Psychological Science, 23 (4), 391-396.

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

4. 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, 596-603.

5. Van Bavel, J.J. & Cunningham, W.A. (2009). Self-categorization with a novel mixed-race group moderates automatic social and racial biases. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (3), pp. 321-335.

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