Empathy and bias are more intertwined than we often think

Studying empathy can sometimes seem like a look at how self-involved we are

Prabarna Ganguly

National Human Genome Research Institute

Humankind's recent past has been marked by decade-long wars and citizens seeking refuge in foreign lands, where they often face an unknown language, culture, and history. But what does that country do when hundreds of thousands of refugees seek asylum in their backyard? 

If you were German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015, then the answer was to defend a right to asylum, with the full support of the state to help refugees integrate into German culture. But in 2018, only a few leaders are willing to take those steps, faced as they are with rising inequality, staunch political opposition, and the resurgence of far-right parties across the world. 

This has led to a devastating paradox: at a time when millions of displaced families need shelter and safety, immigration bans, deportations, and mass xenophobia are on the rise. Which raises two dire questions: where is our empathy during such times of crisis? And what if empathy can play a role in dividing us?

For all of human history, from warring city-states to imperialist explorers and modern nationalists, the world has seen itself divided into two spheres – “us” and “them.” We often see our identities in solidarity with the people who seem most familiar to us; our words sound like their words, and their values, or lack thereof, resonate with the stories we tell ourselves every day. You can hear it in the innocuous shouts between Patriots and Eagles fans, the professional sparring between the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the original internet dispute: Star Wars or Star Trek


Kevin Burkett  / Flickr

But there are more insidious forms of such thinking. During times of war and conflict, ideologies propelling an "us" versus "them" attitude have been shown to yield devastating consequences, at home and abroad, fueling strife, oppression, and war. After World War II, people created norms of living that tried to grant value and dignity to all humans alike. They achieved a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations, hard-fought civil rights victories in the US, and the collapse of literal and figurative walls. Around the world, people shook hands and patted backs for a job well done. Yet, given the nature of humans and history, the last few years have again given rise to forms of ungainly populism and nationalist rhetoric.

These movements, steeped in dehumanizing language and feeling, have a natural opposite that might counteract them: empathy.

Emotional skews

From a day-to-day perspective, we associate empathy with the practice of compassion, and we think of it as rooted in “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” as the Oxford English dictionary puts it. Until recently, neuroscience models of empathy had assumed that people mainly use their emotions as a guide for sharing how someone else feels. But what role, exactly, does the brain play in regulating empathy? 

In 2013, researchers from the Max-Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences asked this very question, and found some intriguing results. They discovered that there is a region in the brain called the right supramarginal gyrus, which helps distinguish our emotional state (“I am happy”) from that of another person (“She is not happy”). But the ability to make that distinction seems to depend on the emotional state you are originally in.

To parse this out, let’s assume you are in an experiment with another person, Mr. X. In the first scenario, you and Mr. X are both made to feel pleasant or unpleasant. You are then asked to quickly assess how Mr. X feels. In this case, you will be more likely to accurately assess that Mr. X feels the same way as you because you have the same emotional state. In the second scenario, you see negative images –pictures of maggots, for instance – and the smell of a stinkbug wafts in the room. Meanwhile Mr. X sees positive images of puppies playing in a field of flowers, and the scent of fresh-cut grass drifts in. When asked to rapidly respond about how you think Mr. X feels, it's more likely that you will assume he is a little less happy than he actually is, because you were influenced by the emotions you experienced (which in this case is negative), and asked to respond in a short period of time.

Brain regions such as the right supramarginal gyrus, temporoparietal junction, and the inferior parietal lobe enable experience-sharing between people. But when we have contrasting experiences under time constraints, these regions function abnormally, thereby skewing our perceptions of other's pain or happiness towards what we feel. However, the study also revealed that these brain regions can correct and overcome those skewed perceptions when provided with more time to respond to the contrasting situations.

The changing faces of empathy

Social psychologists and neuroscientists have increasingly recognized that empathy has many sides. One individual can experience empathy with another, or one group with a second, for instance. Working off this premise, many conflict resolution programs use training sessions that revolve around fostering empathy among people involved in conflicts. But there is a danger in the assumption that more empathy guarantees goodness and compassion, the incentives to resolving conflict.

In many regions with conflicts, the effort to train and induce empathy has concentrated on individuals. However, these missions often lose sight of how empathy can work on groups, and how it shapes our social identities. 

Recent psychological research shows that there is a difference in how we use empathy among groups versus individuals. For example, multiple studies on Israelis and Palestinians reveal that people who engage in extreme violence do not necessarily lack empathy. Instead, they have high empathy for the group they belong to and low empathy for the group they oppose. If this is indeed the case, then inducing general empathy might actually motivate hostility towards some groups, a consequence that conflicts directly with our usual association between empathy and altruistic behavior.

'Empathy bias'

The comparison between how much we empathize with our own social group and another group is a measure that could be called “empathy bias,” and which could help explain our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors towards people outside our social groups. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Harvard recently collaborated to investigate what empathy bias might cause in people who feel a strong sense of belonging with a group. In their study, empathy bias was measured as the degree to which participants felt good or bad about the fortunes and misfortunes of their own group compared to another.

They looked at three different social groups: Americans regarding people from the Middle East, Hungarians regarding Muslim refugees, and Greeks regarding Germans. Not only did participants from all three countries show an empathy bias for their own groups, but that bias also strongly suggested lower willingness to support the other group, either through charity or by inducing passive harm (such as refusing to provide aid to thwart a terror attack). Such results indicate empathy bias, and not just empathy in general, can serve as an important measure of empathy in society. When one group of people feels a decreased sense of empathy for another group, and a high sense of empathy for their own, it implies less motivation to help people from the “outside” group – even when they're suffering.

Examining empathy can sometimes feel like a study of the opposite: all the complex, tacit ways that humans reveal how self-involved we are. When we look at the pain of others, our personal lenses can distort our understanding of their pain and suffering. In a group, we accord values and meaning to "our" people, and diminish the value of those outside them. 

Yet despite these pervading instincts, there is reason to believe that our brains are wired to correct, and counteract such behaviors. Empathy might be distorted by feelings or swept aside by our choices, but it does not simply disappear. Through training and effort, at home and in society, with science and with art, we can learn to encourage empathy. It's time we called for a return to cooperation among many groups – in politics, education, and research – to work together to understand and combat empathy bias, and perhaps propel us towards an empathic rebellion.