Empathy for Outsiders Can Be Taught

New research finds a specific scenario can increase empathetic feelings toward a maligned group.
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New research finds a specific scenario can increase empathetic feelings toward a maligned group.
(Photo: Feng Yu/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Feng Yu/Shutterstock)

As we noted last week, terrorism-derived fear increases prejudice toward perceived outsiders. Wouldn't it be nice if some simple action could produce the opposite result? New research from Switzerland suggests such an intervention actually exists—and may even have lasting results.

The new study finds when a member of a minority group makes a personal sacrifice in order to spare you from pain, your level of empathy increases—not only for that individual, but also for other members of that group.

"Our findings show that empathy with an out-group member can be learned, and generalizes to other out-group individuals," a research team led by Grit Hein of the University of Zurich writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prejudice is not intractable; it can, in effect, be un-learned.

The researchers add that "surprisingly few" such experiences can produce this positive result.

The study was based on the concept of "negative reinforcement," which is defined as "learning that arises from the absence of an expected negative outcome." It featured 40 young men, whose brains were scanned as the experiment took place.

The participants, all Swiss, "were paired with individuals of Swiss descent (in-group members), and individuals of Balkan descent (out-group members)," the researchers write. "The latter form a large minority in Switzerland, whose presence is often portrayed as problematic."

During the first phase of the experiment, each participant and his two confederates were all subject to "painful stimulation," receiving a jolt of electricity to the back of the hand.

For the second phase, one of the two confederates was designated a "decision maker." The participant was told he was about to "receive a number of painful shocks," but the "decision maker" could prevent this "by giving up money he would otherwise earn."

"The name of the potential helper was revealed just before the intervention started, and was a typical Balkan name in the experimental group, and a typical Swiss name in the control group," the researchers write.

The session consisted of 20 trials, 15 "in which the participant received help from the other person, and five in which he did not receive help and was thus subjected to pain."

In the final phase, two new associates (again, one Swiss and one Balkan) were substituted for the first two, and the participant watched as one of them was subjected to the painful electrical pulses. A brain scanner measured the level of empathy he was feeling for the person experiencing pain.

The researchers report that getting help from a member of the out-group created an increase in empathy for another member of that group who was suffering.

"The generalization of the learning effect is important," they write, "because it shows the robustness of the learning intervention, and its potential relevance for society."

So when a member of a group you view with suspicion helps you out in a difficult situation, at a cost to him or herself, it changes the way your brain reacts to members of that group. These encouraging results suggest that prejudice is not intractable; it can, in effect, be un-learned.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.