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Art as a Trojan Horse

How the arts can help us heal from historical injustices.

Love is a singular adventure in the quest for truth about difference.” —Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love

Empathy involves cognitively imagining others’ perspectives and emotionally feeling care and compassion for them. When people are asked to envision what the world looks like to someone else, this ignites their compassion, and as a result, inspires altruistic behavior (1). In some ways, empathy is a form of love that bridges our individual selves to other people. Unfortunately, people tend to naturally apply their empathy toward those who seem similar to them (2), and people in power seem to have more difficulty empathizing (3). These are two big barriers to empathy when it comes to issues of historical injustice, which are intimately linked with perceived group differences and power inequality.

Yet as a scholar who has studied empathy (and its counterpoint, narcissism) for over a decade, I still see empathy as a powerful tool for addressing these issues. Although we don’t naturally empathize with those who are different, people can easily overcome this tendency (1). And doing so could lead to good outcomes for others around us, and also for ourselves. For example, studies find that empathic traits and caring behaviors are associated with more happiness and better health (4, 5), and antisocial states like narcissism and prejudice may take a physiological toll on the body (6, 7).

When thinking about issues of similarity and difference around historical injustices, two key ideas can mutually co-exist. First, there are differences between individuals (and groups), and second, there are similarities that make us all share a common humanity. Both are equally true, but the first idea can often divide people, while the second can inspire extreme acts of altruism. For example, studies of Holocaust rescuers find that despite many differences between these people on surface characteristics, what united them psychologically was their high tendency toward empathy and their sense that they shared a common humanity with the people who they welcomed into their homes (8, 9).

Does this mean that we should ignore differences? Absolutely not—suppressing or minimizing differences might have the unintended side effect of erasing years of oppression and injustice. However, we need creative ways of bridging differences between people.

Art is a great potential universalizer.

In his famous essay “What is art?” Leo Tolstoy argues that empathic processes are fundamental to art: “On this capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of other people, the activity of art is based” (10). Art can help people to see their differences in the context of our common human experiences. Everyone suffers, everyone loves, everyone craves beauty, and everyone grieves. These universal emotional experiences, among others, are the subjects, and often the motivation behind, much art (including literature, performing arts, and visual arts).

So, empathy is the process, but art is a concrete building block that translates other people’s experiences from abstract, foreign-seeming ideas to emotionally evocative and personal realities. It is one thing for a Caucasian-American teenager to have a vague knowledge of African-American history gleaned from their history teachers, the continuing segregation they see in their cafeterias and neighborhoods, and from occasional exposure to iconic cultural figures such as Martin Luther King. It is quite another for this teenager to learn about the lived experiences of African-Americans. This can happen directly, for example, through individual friendships (11), but artistic and cultural artifacts are more indirect ways to experience the world through another’s eyes.

Again, Tolstoy is eloquent on this point: “Art is that human activity which consists in one man’s consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.” (10) Whatever the medium, artistic creations can speak of contemporary experiences via living artists of all kinds, but they also can help us to access the experiences of people from the past. It is not enough to simply encourage people to empathically engage with those who are different from them, especially people from oppressed groups. I see art as a Trojan horse that is hiding empathy in its belly. Interesting, beautiful, or provocative artworks can beckon people into greater compassion in a way that is more difficult to do with moral finger-wagging.

How effective is it to tell smokers that they should just quit already because smoking is disgusting and bad for them? Prejudice and discrimination can be seen as similarly powerful habits that are difficult to break because of how ingrained they are within our everyday lives. Research on health behavior change finds that one reason it is difficult to change unhealthy habits like smoking is that people put up defensive resistance (12). It feels bad to be told that you’re bad, and it is easier for most people to avoid trying to change. But if we just stop for a moment to reflect on our important values, a process called self-affirmation, we are less defensive and more able to break difficult habits (13, 14).

Issues of injustice and inequality are glaringly obvious to people who live their daily lives in a state of systematic oppression. For people from oppressed groups, even simple social interactions, like buying groceries or hallway conversations at work, can be fraught within unspoken tensions and anxieties. However, traditional power holders in our society are much less likely to notice these subtle cues, or even to admit that larger inequalities are still so pervasive. In fact, social psychology research shows that when people are put in a position of power, even temporarily, they become blind to others’ perspectives (3). Yet cultural change and reparations are unlikely to exist until traditional power holders have a better understanding of others’ experiences.

Art can help people to lower their defenses, thus opening themselves to consider other perspectives. Artists spend their lives observing, listening, and sharing their imaginative insights with others. By making us stop for a moment and see something in a different way, art can melt our resistance and overcome our preconceived notions.

One example of how this might work in practice was a study conducted by MacArthur fellow Elizabeth Levy Paluck. She found that fictional dramatic plays presented on the radio could positively influence listeners’ willingness to stand up for what they believe in and act cooperatively to achieve prosocial goals (15). (Of course, as demonstrated by historical propaganda campaigns, sometimes art can also promote antisocial behavior—any discussion of these issues should admit that the content matters.)

These are among the types of themes that I will be exploring during my residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, as part of their Truth & Reconciliation theme year.


1. C. D. Batson, Altruism in humans. (Oxford University Press, 2011).

2. S. D. Preston, F. De Waal, Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25, 1-20 (2002).

3. A. D. Galinsky, J. C. Magee, M. E. Inesi, D. H. Gruenfeld, Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science 17, 1068-1074 (2006).

4. S. Konrath, in Wellbeing: A Complete Reference Guide. Interventions and Policies to Enhance Wellbeing, F. Huppert, C. L. Cooper, Eds. (John Wiley & Sons Ltd, West Sussex, UK, 2014), vol. VI, pp. 387-426.

5. S. Konrath, S. L. Brown, in Handbook of Health and Social Relationships, N. Roberts, M. Newman, Eds. (American Psychological Association, 2012).

6. D. A. Reinhard, S. H. Konrath, W. D. Lopez, H. G. Cameron, Expensive Egos: Narcissistic Males Have Higher Cortisol. PLoS ONE 7, e30858 (2012).

7. W. Berry Mendes, H. M. Gray, R. Mendoza-Denton, B. Major, E. S. Epel, Why egalitarianism might be good for your health: Physiological thriving during stressful intergroup encounters. Psychological Science 18, 991-998 (2007).

8. K. R. Monroe, The heart of altruism: Perceptions of a common humanity. (Cambridge Univ Press, 1996).

9. S. P. Oliner, P. Oliner, Altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. (Simon and Schuster, 1992).

10. L. Tolstoy, What is art? , (Penguin Classics, London, UK, 1987/1995).

11. N. J. Shook, R. H. Fazio, Interracial roommate relationships: An experimental field test of the contact hypothesis. Psychological Science 19, 717-723 (2008).

12. D. K. Sherman, G. L. Cohen, The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. Advances in experimental social psychology 38, 183 (2006).

13. P. R. Harris, K. Mayle, L. Mabbott, L. Napper, Self-affirmation reduces smokers' defensiveness to graphic on-pack cigarette warning labels. Health Psychology 26, 437 (2007).

14. T. Epton, P. R. Harris, R. Kane, G. M. van Koningsbruggen, P. Sheeran, The impact of self-affirmation on health-behavior change: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology 34, 187 (2015).

15. E. L. Paluck, D. P. Green, Deference, dissent, and dispute resolution: An experimental intervention using mass media to change norms and behavior in Rwanda. American Political Science Review 103, 622-644 (2009).