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Transcript
Marisa Mealy
Central Connecticut State University
Walter G. Stephan
University of Hawaii
Intergroup Empathy
Empathy plays a crucial role in intergroup relations because it helps members of
groups with differing worldviews, interests, and histories to develop an understanding of
one another. Intergroup empathy occurs when members of one social group identify with
the emotions or perspectives of members of another social group. Empathy holds great
promise as a means of improving intergroup relations because of its potential to reduce
prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination. However, it is not a simple panacea, but rather
a complex and subtle process involving cognitive, affective, and communicative elements
that develop over time. Understanding the causes and consequences of intergroup
empathy will make it possible to facilitate interactions between members of different
groups and refine intergroup relations programs.
There are three distinct types of intergroup empathy: Cognitive, affective, and
behavioral. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to see the world from the perspective
of a member of another group. It is useful in acquiring knowledge about the cultural
practices, norms, values, beliefs, standards, and views of outgroup members. Thus,
cognitive empathy can make the outgroup seem less alien and lead to the humanizing and
individualizing of outgroup members, thereby reducing cognitive biases in intergroup
perception.
There are two sub-types of affective empathy: Parallel empathy and reactive
empathy. Parallel empathy occurs when an ingroup member experiences emotions
similar to those being experienced by the outgroup member, although often of lower
intensity. For instance, if an outgroup member is feeling depressed and this leads the
ingroup member to feel a corresponding sadness, that is parallel empathy. Parallel
empathy can involve identifying with others’ hopes and joys as well as their anger, fear,
and pain.
In reactive empathy, the emotional response of the ingroup member differs from
that of the outgroup member. For example, if an outgroup member is suffering due to
discrimination and an ingroup member feels sorrow in response to their plight, that is
reactive empathy. In the context of others’ suffering, reactive empathy can involve two
contrasting affective responses: compassion and personal distress. Compassion related
responses are composed of emotions that are positive in nature, such as sympathy,
kindness, and concern. These emotions generally lead to improvements in intergroup
relations. On the other hand, personal distress responses are comprised primarily of
negative feelings such as anxiety, threat, and revulsion. Personal distress often leads to a
distancing between ingroup and outgroup members and, as a result, is unlikely to lead to
improvements in intergroup relations. One especially complicated personal distress
response is guilt, which may occur when a person perceives that injustices experienced
by the outgroup were caused by his or her ingroup. Guilt might motivate actions to
redress the wrongs against the outgroup, but it could as easily lead to defensive
avoidance.
The two types of affective empathy are not mutually exclusive and can occur
simultaneously. An ingroup member may experience positive reactive empathy, such as
compassion for the suffering of an outgroup member, while at the same time feeling the
parallel emotional reaction of resentment towards one’s own ingroup for causing the
suffering. Mixed emotions elicited while experiencing emotional empathy may be
confusing to ingroup members and limit the degree to which improvements in intergroup
relations occur.
Intergroup empathy also has a behavioral component. This component involves
overtly communicating a comprehension of the experiences of the outgroup member or
displaying insight into their experiences or emotional reactions. An outward show of
concern in word and deed in response to another’s suffering would be an example of the
communicative aspect of empathy.
Although, it is clear that there are individual differences in empathy, it is equally
clear that contextual factors can activate or inhibit empathy in most people. As is true for
empathy in general, it is most likely that individual differences in intergroup empathy
have a developmental trajectory because they are acquired gradually over time. Recent
studies of twins have found that environmental factors, such as parental socialization,
play a more important role in the development of general empathic abilities than genetic
factors. It also appears that experiences with empathy have a cumulative effect -- the
more frequently it is experienced, the more empathic the individual becomes.
Research indicates that when intergroup empathy is activated, more favorable
attitudes toward the outgroup often result. This finding has been obtained for a variety of
outgroups including ethno-cultural groups, people with terminal illness, the homeless,
and even prisoners on death row. However, researchers have found that empathy may
not reduce attitudinal bias toward groups in which membership is both temporary and
under the control of the actor. For instance, empathy does not reduce negative attitudes
toward obese people, apparently because obesity is thought to be transitory and under
individual control.
Empathy has also been shown to play a role in promoting prosocial and
preventing antisocial behavior. For example, in situations where people experience
empathic concern, they are likely to engage in prosocial (altruistic) behavior. Research
indicates that people who are experiencing empathy for others allocate more resources to
them. In contrast, a lack of empathy is associated with a greater willingness to inflict
pain and suffering on others (e.g., sexual aggression, child abuse, and violence). One
study found that adolescent sexual offenders had low levels of empathy for their victims.
Because empathy can create conflicts between an individual’s prior attitudes,
emotions, and behaviors and their current attitudes, emotions, and behaviors, it can lead
to cognitive dissonance. For instance, when an ingroup member experiences a positive
empathic connection with a member of a previously disliked outgroup, a discrepancy is
created between the prior attitude and the current positive emotional response to the
other. In order to reduce the internal conflict created by this dissonance, the individual
may change their attitudes to be in accord with the positive valence of their empathic
response. Yet, there is also a danger that feelings of dissonance may lead to the
dismissing or downplaying empathic reactions in order to make current behavior
consistent with prior negative attitudes.
Empathy does not operate in isolation, but rather can be viewed as an intervening
variable that helps to explain a complex web of causation between situational experiences
and their ultimate effects. Intergroup contact, intergroup relations training, or acquiring
knowledge of outgroup members may create intergroup empathy. This empathic
response can then lead to changes in individual attitudes and behavior, thereby
contributing to improvements in intergroup relations. For example, interacting with an
individual from a disadvantaged group, such as the disabled, may activate compassionate
reactive empathy leading to a concern for the individual outgroup member, which may
then generalize to the outgroup as a whole. Likewise, anger toward the ingroup that is
created through parallel empathy due to the injustices suffered by an ethnic outgroup can
lead to a reappraisal of more general beliefs, such as beliefs in a just world.
Because of its’ potential beneficial influence on attitudes, emotions, and behavior,
empathy is often an explicit element of programs designed to improve intercultural
relations, intergroup relations, diversity in the workforce, and conflict resolution skills.
For instance, in multicultural education programs, information regarding the similarities
and differences between various racial, ethnic, and cultural groups is presented from the
perspective of each group. Intergroup dialogue programs provide members of two
groups that have a history of conflict, such as Muslims and Christians, with an
opportunity to discuss their own experiences and listen to the experiences of others.
Participation in such groups has been shown to increase empathy. Likewise, participants
in multi-ethnic cooperative-learning groups display an increase in empathy.
For intergroup empathy to fulfill its promise as a tool to improve intergroup
relations, there are many questions that remain to be answered. Do the different types of
empathy have different consequences for intergroup cognitions, emotions, and behaviors?
What are the most effective techniques of teaching empathy? At what ages can it be
employed? What types of situations are most likely to activate it? How can the pitfalls
of defensiveness and personal distress responses be avoided? Are there other types of
empathy that need to be examined? And, finally, how long do its effects last and how can
enduring effects be maximized? As the answers to these questions emerge, intergroup
empathy will come to play an ever more prominent role in our understanding of
intergroup relations.
Suggested Readings:
Aureli F. & Schaffner C.M. (2002) Empathy as a special case of emotional mediation of
social behavior. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25:23-24.
Batson, C.D., Polucarpou, M.P., Harmon-Jones, E., Imhoff, H.J., Mitchener, E.C.,
Bednar, L.L. Klein, T.R., and Highberger, L. (1997). Empathy and Attitudes: Can
feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 105-118.
Dovidio, J.F., ten Vergert, M., Stewart, T.L., Gaertner, S.L., Johnson, J.D., Esses, V.M.,
Riek, B.M., & Pearson, A.R. (2004). Perspective and Prejudice: Antecedents and
mediating mechanisms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 15371549.
Duan, C. & Hill, C.E. (1996). The Current State of Empathy Research. Journal of
Counseling Psychology, 43, 261-274.
Oceja, L & Jimenez, I. (2007). Beyond egoism and group identity: Empathy toward the
other and awareness of others in social dilemma. The Spanish Journal of
Psychology, 10(2): 369-379.
Ridley, C.R. & Lingle, D.W. (1996). Cultural empathy in multicultural counseling: A
multidimensional process model. In P.B. Pederson & D.G. Draguns (Eds.),
Counseling across cultures (4th ed., pp. 21-46). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Stephan, W. & Finlay, K. (1999). The Role of Empathy in Improving Intergroup
Relations. Journal of Social Issues, 55(4): 729-743.
Teachman, B.A., Gapinski, K.D., Brownell, K.D., Rawlins, M., Jeyaram, S. (2003).
Demonstrations of Implicit Anti-Fat Bias: The Impact of Providing Causal
Information and Evoking Empathy. Health Psychology, 22(1) 68-78.
Varker, T. & Devilly, G. J. (2007). Types of empathy and adolescent sexual offenders.
Journal of Sexual Aggression, 13(2): 139-149.
Volbrecht, M.M., Lemery-Chalfant, K., Aksan, N., Zahn-Waxler, C. & Goldsmith, H.H.
(2007). Examining the familial link between positive affect and empathy
development in the second year. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 168(2):105-129.
Wang, Y. W., Davidson, M. M., Yakushko, O. F., Savoy, H. B., Tan, J. A., & Bleier, J.
K. (2003). The Scale of Ethnocultural Empathy: Development, validation, and
reliability. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 50, 221-234.
Cross-references:
Contact hypothesis
Cognitive dissonance
Cognitive bias
Cooperative learning