The effect of intergroup conflict over empathy is very easy to observe in adults as well, and there are many social psychology studies which support this claim. For example, verbal and physical aggression between the fans of rival football teams is common during football match setting. Many of these fans do not know each other. Therefore, they would not show hostility to each other outside of the match context. However, once they are in the match setting, they identify with their group and see the outgroup as an enemy. An fMRI study also showed that when people watched their team win, regions which are associated with pleasure was activated. On the other hand, regions which are related to pain were activated when participants watched the opponent team win (12).
Zaki claimed that people usually avoid empathy when they do not want to experience pain, or when empathy will have a cost. To avoid these negativities, one of the techniques people use is reappraising targets as deserving of their suffering (11). In addition to intergroup conflict, this is also a very common source of unemphatic behaviour in daily life. It is very likely that you have heard someone saying that a homeless person is homeless because he/she is just lazy and that’s why he/she ended up in the streets. This way the person protects his/her belief in the world as orderly and fair (15). Suggesting that some people deserve their cruel fate because everyone gets what they deserve is a dangerous way of thinking. Considering that people who are unfortunate deserve the punishment, the mentality especially targets underprivileged groups and minorities. This mindset can lead to justification of the status quo in countries where there is a large income gap and would increase the tendency to blame victims of rape, abuse, and mental illness.
Fritz Breithaupt who is an affiliate professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University, has very interesting views about empathy. He claims that rather than connecting people, empathy can separate them. When an individual is empathizing with a group, he/she will agree with the group’s opinions, share their emotions, and adopt their viewpoints. Therefore, if there is a conflict, people may support the side that they have empathized, while disregarding the other group. From the perspective of the identified group, the other group may appear unappealing, unfair, repulsive, wrong, or bad. For example, terrorists may empathize with his/her violent group to such a degree that they act violently against the other side. Empathy here could be a motivator for murder (16). On a less extreme level, a recruiter, for instance, might empathize and therefore favour an applicant simply because they went to the same university or they support the same team.
Besides not fully agreeing with his statements, I agree that empathy should not be perceived as solely morally positive since it sometimes requires favouring one group over another. Breithaupt states that empathy is not solely bad either, we just need to be careful about the possible consequences of empathy. One thing that both Zaki and Breithaupt agreed on is that empathy is a trait that we can guide. It can be shifted, adjusted by amount, tailored in a direction where it creates bridges rather than demolishing them.
Many studies show that empathy between groups and people can be improved. A research conducted by Sheskin, Bloom, and Wynn (2014) has very promising findings of empathy. They conducted the study with 5- to 10-year-old children to examine whether young children prefer others to receive less than themselves. In the experiment, kids decided how many tokens they will get versus how many will go to another child. In one of the conditions, two options were introduced: in the first one, both kids would receive equal tokens (e.g., 8-8); in the second option, the subject kid would receive more than the other kid but less than she/he would get in the first condition (e.g., 7-0). 5- and 6-year-old children choose to have fewer prizes themselves just to get more than the other child. However, as the children get older, this preference turned to an opposite way. Children started to choose equal token option even if they get less in that condition (e.g., 5-5 vs 6-0). Moreover, they avoid advantageous inequality where they could take more than the other kid (17).
Together with the infant studies which I have mentioned, the results of these studies may suggest that the trait of selfishness have their seeds on the baby’s mind, and this is observable at the age of 5-6 years. However, as the children get older, the greater cognitive abilities, culture, and education seem to overcome the effect of selfishness. Although adults can show selfish acts and there is still discrimination all around the world, these results are giving the hope that empathy is a flexible and trainable trait.
An unfortunate case of Beth Thomas is another example of how empathy can be gained with training. Beth Thomas’ mother died when she was 1 year old. After that, she was sexually abused by her biological father when she was still 1 year old. Due to the extreme neglect and abuse, she developed reactive attachment disorder and started to show psychopathic behaviours which lead physically hurting animals, her biological brother, and her adoptive parents. After several months long psychotherapy, Beth started to show signs of remorse when she did something wrong. She developed a sense of trust towards her parents and gained an understanding of what is right and what is wrong (18). This very unfortunate case shows that people have a capability to gain empathy even in the face of extremely adverse life events.
The literature which shows that empathy is a trainable trait leaves us to investigate what can be done to increase empathy among people to live in peace. I think the responsibility here is not only belongs to psychologists but also to parents, teachers, politicians and governments.
First, individuals need a healthy parent-child relationship to develop healthy social relationships. Maternal and paternal emotional warmth is positively associated with altruism in children via empathic behaviour. On the other hand, rejection of the parents is negatively associated with children’s altruism (19). Moreover, parental support and parental challenge together have an important effect on individual’s prosocial and empathic behaviour towards friends and family (21). Ineffective parenting can lead to negative results on the empathy of children. A study showed that permissive parenting contributes directly and indirectly to antisocial behaviour, via its influence on cognitive and emotional empathy development (20). Parents affect not only their children’s empathy abilities but also their outgroup evaluations directly. A study, for example, showed that parents indirectly affect their child’s attitudes via their opinion of outgroup members as homogeneous or heterogeneous. That is, children were less biased if their mother has non-stereotyped opinions of outgroup members and viewed outgroup members as more diverse rather than thinking all outgroup members are similar (22).
A crucial factor that could create a difference in an individual’s social and empathic abilities is the school environment and teacher’s attitude. Children start school at a very young age such as 5-6 and the majority of the population continues their education until 18. They spend most of the day in the school socializing with their peers and teachers. Considering school is a major part of children’s lives, it is inevitable that a child will be affected by peers, teachers, and the school environment in many aspects. In younger ages, children can model and even idolize their teacher. Therefore, teachers’ attitudes toward discriminatory behaviours is one of the important factors which would affect educational outcomes. In a class environment where discriminatory behaviours are strongly discouraged by the teacher, the students would be less likely to show such behaviours. The findings of a study support this claim by showing that social norms which encourage empathy in a group, increases individuals’ willingness to empathize with outgroup members (24). In addition to the attitude of the teacher, the content of teaching is another important factor that can promote empathy. Many of us learn about topics like racism, sexism, homophobia, gender inequality either in university or by ourselves with our own efforts when we are adults. Some of us never learn how to think critically about these issues. Therefore, a course on discriminatory behaviours may create a great impact on students who are the adults of the future. The findings of a review show that addressing issues such as harassment, bullying, racism, and discrimination by programs and interventions in schools reduces discriminatory behaviours and biased attitudes (23).
On a society level, politicians and government have a major role in enhancing empathy and reducing prejudice and bias against out groups. There are several minority groups in society such as different ethnic groups, LGBTI, people with physical or mental disabilities. It is crucial that politicians do not make any statement that can marginalize these groups or cause a polarization in society. Targeting can be especially dangerous in times of crisis. The scapegoat theory is in line with this suggestion. According to this theory, frustration occurs due to the interruption of reaching to desired goals. It is the primary cause of aggression. This aggression may be displaced towards groups which are different from those who are actually the source of frustration. As frustration builds up, and aggression cannot be expressed towards its sources, a scapegoat for reflecting the frustration will be found (25). For example, in an economic crisis, the source of frustration could be reflected on immigrants. This effect will intensify if politicians will target immigrants. The effect of authority is well-known thanks to several studies such as Milgram experiment (26). Therefore, if the information is coming from an authority, this would validate the feeling of hostility even further, and could cause an increase in aggression. The validation power of authority figures can also create a positive impact. For example, Netherland is the first country to legalize same-sex marriage (27). Research which synthesizes the rankings of European countries across eight studies showed that Netherland is the number one country which exhibits positive public attitudes towards homosexuality and gay rights (28). This may not imply a cause-effect relationship between legalizing same-sex marriage and positive attitudes however it may imply a certain effect like correlation.
Finally, psychologists have a key role in enhancing empathy in society. We are responsible to investigate what are the underlying mechanisms of empathy, altruism, outgroup bias, and in what context they increase or decrease. Based on findings, we are responsible to develop interventions and education programs which increase empathy and reduce outgroup bias. So far, many inspiring studies have been conducted such as Wynn and her colleagues’ studies with the infants and children. However, there is still a lot to discover. For example, research on personal strategies to increase or decrease empathy is still limited (11). Also, studies on how politicians’ attitudes affect public opinion towards outgroups are very limited. There are several important theories, but little research has been conducted since it is difficult to ensure ecological validity. On the road of discovering the unique social cognition of humans we have come far but there is still a lot to discover.
To sum up, both humans and nonhuman animals have social cognition. However, higher-order social cognitive abilities like empathy, altruism, the theory of mind seem to be unique to humans. While other animals show relatively more limited abilities that cannot be applied to other domains, human cognition has the flexibility of using various abilities in an infinite number of different contexts. This brought us to the question of whether humans can use these high cognitive abilities to live together in peace. Studies have promising results on the matter by suggesting that people can gain empathy. On the dark side, however, empathy might be the very reason for outgroup bias since it usually requires identifying with a group. What we can do is to cultivate our sense of empathy and try to be conscious of the dark nature of it. This is not something simple to do. Every member of society has an important job to enhance empathy and reduce outgroup bias. However, psychologists, parents, teachers, politicians, and governments have a key role. A steady and healthy parent-child relationship raises healthy individuals with better prosocial abilities. A good education system where children are taught what discrimination is and how it exhibits itself in society raises awareness among kids. A government that promotes empathy with its policy and cares about human rights with its laws encourages society to show empathy. Politicians who do not marginalize any minority group supports people to have a more positive view of outgroups. Finally, psychologists can discover the underlying mechanisms of empathy, altruism, and outgroup bias and develop intervention and education programs. If we would live in a world where all these conditions were provided, without a doubt there would be more peace. However, it looks like this possibility is far in the future considering the corrupted education system, poverty, and polarizing speech of world leaders in most parts of the world.