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The Limits of Empathy for Outsiders

Two new studies — one sociological, another using brain scans — document and help explain our lack of empathy for perceived outsiders.
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The ethnic makeup of an area changes due to increased immigration, and support for social welfare programs declines. As “outsiders” move in, high-minded notions of compassion and equality give way to an every-man-for-himself ethos.

What is it with those Swedes, anyway?

That’s right: Swedes. A new study finds the link between race, ethnicity and lowered support for a social safety net — previously documented in the United States — can also be found in what is widely considered the world’s most egalitarian nation.

Writing in the European Sociological Review, University of Washington sociologist Maureen Eger notes that Sweden has undergone a rapid transformation from a homogeneous society to a multicultural one. In 1960, foreign-born residents made up 4 percent of the nation’s population; that figure is now up to 13 percent.

Looking at census data and survey responses collected between 1986 and 2002, Eger reports that “in counties with a high proportion of recent immigrants, respondents are significantly less supportive of the welfare state.” She adds that “immigration is the only county-level variable that negatively affects Swedes’ attitudes” toward the social safety net.

Recent sociological research demonstrates that the presence of ethnic minority groups has a negative effect on Americans’ support for social welfare,” she writes. “I argue that this relationship is not limited to the United States” — a premise her study appears to confirm.

So why is it members of a majority culture have problems empathizing with the misfortunes of minority members in their midst? Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, University of Toronto psychologists Jennifer Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht provide new evidence that one important factor is the way our brains function.

They note that, according to a prominent theory of empathic behavior, people become sensitive to the feelings of others through a process of “perception-action coupling.” When we see a sad or troubled face, this activates the same brain activity being experienced by the person we are observing. This neural mirroring increases our sensitivity to their emotional state and “lays the foundation for empathy and social understanding.”

Previous research has found this process occurs less frequently when the person we are observing is someone we don’t consider “one of us,” for reasons of race, class or culture. To explain the neural mechanism behind this phenomenon, the researchers used EEGs to examine the brain activity of 30 white Canadians.

The study participants, all University of Toronto students, watched a simple video in which a series of expressionless men each picked up a glass and took a sip of water. Some watched white men perform this simple task, while others observed members of three minority groups: blacks, South Asians and East Asians.

The researchers report motor cortex activity was “significantly lower” when the participants were watching images of the nonwhite men. Simply put, watching a minority group member produced a less-pronounced vicarious response. Moreover, this tendency was exaggerated for those participants who scored high on a test measuring subtle racism.

Gutsell and Inzlicht note that it’s possible the participants simply paid less attention to the minority members, making this a matter of “selective attention” rather than active antipathy. Either way, however, a basic brain mechanism involved in engendering empathy was short-circuited.

The good news is there may be ways to compensate for this inability (or unconscious unwillingness) to relate. The researchers note that cognitive perspective taking — the ability to recognize and understand the thought process of others — can be learned, and over time, it can “help people overcome their biases.”

Perhaps a pilot program in Sweden is in order.