Your Brain Can Learn to Empathize with Outside Groups

Neuroscience shows that positive interactions with strangers increases empathy.

Posted Dec 23, 2015

VLADGRIN/Shutterstock
Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

Looking back on 2015, the most disturbing trends in the news for me were: the growing divide between the “haves” and “have nots,” increasing xenophobia, and the portrayal of strangers and refugees in specific outside groups as all being potential terrorists. Instead of a sentiment of “one for all and all for one,” there is a growing feeling of every man for himself in a dog-eat-dog world of “us” against “them.”

One thing I love about neuroscience is that it has the potential to reveal universal aspects of our human nature in a laboratory setting. Science-based findings can serve as a way to identify global truths that are held in every human beings' neurobiology. 

In recent years, a variety of studies have confirmed that people can learn to empathize with strangers on a neurobiological level. A new study, from the University of Zurich, reports that having just a few positive exchanges with a person from an outside group can trigger neuronal changes in the brain that cause someone to become more empathetic towards strangers from this outside group.

The December 2015 study, “How Learning Shapes the Empathic Brain,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America. This study found that positive experiences with someone from another group trigger a learning effect in the brain, which increases empathy.

Conflicts between people from different nationalities and cultures often stem from a lack of empathy or compassion for strangers in an outside group. This research is promising because it provides proof that empathy for members of other groups can be created simply by having a positive social interaction, which can lead to peaceful coexistence. 

For this study, psychologist and neuroscientist Grit Hein teamed up with Philippe Tobler, Jan Engelmann, and Marius Vollberg to measure brain activity in participants who had positive social experiences both with a member of their own group (ingroup member) compared with someone from a group of strangers (outgroup member).

During the experiment, study participants expected to receive painful shocks to the backs of their hands. However, they were also told that a member of their own, or another group, could pay money to spare them the physical pain. Brain activity was measured when someone was observing pain in another person from his or her own "ingroup" or for a stranger from an "outgroup." 

maxstockphoto/Shutterstock
Source: maxstockphoto/Shutterstock

At the beginning of the study, a stranger's pain triggered weaker brain activation in the observer than if a member of his or her own group was suffering. However, after only a handful of positive experiences with an individual from the stranger's group lending a helping hand, there were significant increases in empathic brain response when pain was inflicted on a social acquaintance from the outgroup. The stronger the positive experience with the stranger had been, the greater the increase in neuronal empathy. Positive social experiences, brain changes, and empathy grew in tandem. 

The increased empathic brain response for the outgroup was driven by a neuronal learning signal that develops simply through positive experiences of generosity and reciprocity with a stranger. In a press release, Hein concluded, "These results reveal that positive experiences with a stranger are transferred to other members of this group and increase the empathy for them."

Rich Man, Poor Man: Can the One Percent Empathize With the 99 Percent? 

I hate labels and stereotypes based on race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. To be honest, I'm tired of writing about these topics. However, because separatism remains so omnipresent, I can't pretend that these issues don't occupy a lot of brain space for all of us. From terrorism, to the need for weekly Black Lives Matter protests around the country, to assaults on Planned Parenthood, to calls to ban Muslim immigration, and homosexuals getting thrown from the rooftops of buildings in the Middle East... Conflicts based on ingroups and outgroups continue to dominate current events. We need to stop the hatred and violence towards each other and find ways to come together.

Obviously, from a devil’s advocate perspective, there are extremist “outgroups” that you wouldn’t ever want to become associated with. This creates a potential no-man’s land in terms of isolationism and not wanting to be associated with strangers within a certain group of people—which is often based on fear-mongering and stereotypes—but is sometimes justified. This can be tricky territory to navigate.

Personally, if there's a singular demographic that I have zero interest in associating with, it’s male figures in positions of power who strive to maintain the status quo by keeping marginalized groups being treated like second-class citizens. I also have trouble empathizing with, “greed is good” capitalists, such as Donald Trump, the likes of whom Michael Douglas portrayed so convincingly as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.

My intense personal bias against these demographic groups, in many ways, is the result of being groomed throughout my childhood to become one of these “Masters of the Universe,” in a Bonfire of the Vanities kind of way, at country clubs, boarding school, etc. but never being accepted by the group. 

Because I’m gay, it became transparent to me as an adolescent that the ‘old boys’ club’ would never welcome me—if I ever came out of the closet. Being marginalized, shunned, and discriminated against based on my sexual orientation as I was growing up is something I'm actually grateful for today. . . . Even though it really sucked at the time. That said, because I've had so few positive experiences with the white male establishment, my brain has a difficult time empathizing or relating to them. Maybe that's not such a bad thing? Who knows. 

Petrol/CanStockPhoto
Source: Petrol/CanStockPhoto

I often wonder if I hadn’t been ostracized as a teenager and forced to feel like an outsider, if I would have developed theory of mind for all the underdogs in the world. Theory of Mind (ToM) is described as the ability to attribute mental states—such as beliefs, motivations, and desires—to yourself and others. ToM is basically putting yourself in someone else's shoes and understanding that others have different struggles, beliefs, desires, and aspirations than your own.

One of the weirder aspects of 2015 regarding theory of mind and advances in LGBT rights, is the unintended backlash of what some are calling “homonormativity” and aspirations to be part of the dominant mainstream. For example, this year Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner)—who now identifies as a transgender woman but is also a Republican—created one of the most iconic Vanity Fair magazine covers of all-time with Annie Leibovitz. Ironically, Caitlyn considers herself to be a "traditionalist" and is very conservative. Recently, Jenner told Ellen that she's evolved to tolerate gay marriage but really thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman. Go figure . . . It’s all very complex.

Throughout my life, I’ve had close friends who had conservative viewpoints; despite our political differences, we were ultimately simpatico. But in 2015, the politcal divide created by the Republican party by trying to defund Planned Parenthood, limit women’s healthcare rights, promote anti-Muslim rhetoric, Islamophobia, etc. makes it tough for me to embrace Republicans. In the current 2016 election climate, I find it difficult to empathize with Donald Trump or his supporters. I try to put myself in their shoes to understand what makes them tick, but the truth is, Trump and his supporters terrify me. How about you? 

I came out during the 1980s. The AIDS epidemic was completely decimating my community and "ingroup." At the time, some people in the Reagan administration and the conservative “religious right,” were so homophobic and fearful of gay people that there was talk of rounding up all of the HIV positive men, tattooing them, and sealing them off in “leper colonies.” Michael Stipe from REM recently described this era in an interview saying, "In the early ’80s, as a 22-year-old queer man living during the Reagan-Bush Administration, I was afraid to get tested for HIV for fear of quarantine, the threat of internment camps, and having my basic civil rights stripped away.” 

From a theory of mind perspective, the threat of quarantine to others in my community made me permanently hypersensitive to how quickly a specific group can be targeted and bullied by a more powerful outside group. Therefore, in recent months, when I hear anti-Muslim rhetoric or a lack of compassion for Syrian refugees, it triggers my own empathy and theory of mind for these outside groups because I’ve been in their shoes. I also know that history repeats itself. In his eye-opening and inspiring poem, "First They Came...." Martin Niemöller writes: 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I wonder if one reason it’s easy for Donald Trump to be so bigoted and hateful towards “outgroups” is because he was born into wealth and privilege and has never felt discrimination based on who he was born and his birthright. Fortunately, a lot of the wealthiest people in America, and around the globe, are philanthropic and charitable.

However, as the chasm widens between the haves and have nots, if the "haves" are primarily concerned with staying a part of the ingroup and keeping up with the Jones’ based on wealth and status, their compassion for others less fortunate might never be explored. Luckily, there are efforts being made to educate people from all walks of life on the neurobiological importance of positive interactions with strangers from outside groups. Hopefully, the findings presented in this post will inspire you to reach out to strangers from outside groups and create positive experiences for all parties involved. 

The Neuroscience of Compassion

Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences is reaching out to business leaders to help teach them compassion. Singer is a social neuroscientist and psychologist who believes that systematically training our brains can reshape them to be more compassionate, and in doing so, help make the world a better place. She has discovered that the brain’s plasticity allows us to reshape cortical structures through specific training that makes people less selfish and more prosocial.

Earlier this year, Singer spoke at the World Economic Forum. Please take a few minutes to watch her video which explains the process for improving mindfulness, empathy, compassion, and theory of mind.

Conclusion: "Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself"

Ultimately, living by the Golden Rule is the key for creating peace on earth. In a Psychology Today blog post I wrote a few days ago after seeing The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying, “Ideally, in a utopian society, everyone would be treated equally regardless of our age, gender, religion, color of our skin, or sexual orientation."

Unfortunately, there seems to be an increasing sentiment of "us" against "them." As we head into 2016, I’m optimistic that consistently practicing mindfulness, theory of mind (putting yourself in someone else’s shoes), and loving-kindness meditation (LKM) will help all of us reshape our minds and brains to be more empathetic to outsiders as we strive to make the world a better place for ourselves and generations to come.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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