Empathy Is Surprisingly Easy To Learn

As few as two interventions can eliminate longstanding ethnic suspicions. Champion Studio/Shutterstock

Even small acts of kindness can build empathy, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows, revealing how easy it is to change the way we view someone, from being a distrusted stranger to someone we care about.

“What the world needs now is love,” some songs may proclaim, but empathy might be a higher priority, if harder to make scan. A small number of people appear incapable of empathizing with their fellow human beings in general. It is far more common, however, to care strongly for those who are part of an “in-group”, be that family, friends or those perceived to share traits such as race or national identity. Meanwhile, members of “out-groups” are excluded from this circle of empathy, their suffering ignored or even celebrated.

Religious figures have been pleading for thousands of years for followers to “love thy neighbor”, and to include other ethnic and religious groups in this category. Progress is slow, to say the least, but science offers a little hope on building so-called “out-group empathy”.

The paper reports on a test carried out in Switzerland where 40 men, some native Swiss and others Balkan immigrants, were randomly assigned between experimental and control groups. Empathy was measured using brain scans as participants watched others being subjected to painful, but not dangerous, electric shocks.

Sadly, but predictably, participants reacted more strongly to seeing a member of their in-group get shocked than when the victim was someone they did not relate to from the out-group.

Each participant was then told that he would be given a shock, unless another member of the study group sacrificed money to save them from it. Participants in the control group could be saved by someone with a surname of their own ethnicity – a member of their in-group – while for participants in an experimental group the savior was identifiably ethnically different from them – someone from the out-group.

Experimental group members were pessimistic about being rescued. However, when positively surprised, they changed their view not only of the individual who gave up money to spare their pain, but the whole out-group.

Being spared pain just twice through the sacrifice of a member of an out-group made participants feel closer to that individual, but more importantly caused them to generalize their new perception to the group as a whole. When asked to watch an unknown member of the out-group being given a shock, the brains of participants who had been saved by a different member of the out-group showed dramatically stronger responses in areas associated with empathy. Meanwhile the control group showed no significant change.

"These results reveal that positive experiences with a stranger are transferred to other members of this group and increase the empathy for them," said first author Dr. Grit Hein of the University of Zurich in a statement. The authors have not discussed how the results could be applied in a world where people seldom submit to electric shocks to unlearn negative traits such as racism. Nevertheless, the finding that under the right circumstances, only a few positive interactions are required, surely provides hope.

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