Reducing negative emotions towards out-group members

At present I am travelling with my immediate family, seeing less immediate family, back and forth across the US south. One thing I’ve remembered: it can be good to be a part of a close-knit group. One’s faults and mistakes are more readily understood and forgiven. One’s strengths are more readily celebrated. One’s identity is bolstered in all sorts of ways.

As we should know by now, of course, it can be bad to be a part of a close-knit group as well. In ways one’s freedom and identity can be constrained by group membership. But I’m not thinking of the effects on group members. Being a part of a close-knit group can more readily lead to immoral behaviour towards non-group members. The faults and mistakes of those outside the group are less readily understood and forgiven. The strengths of those outside the group are less readily celebrated. In general, it is easier to demonize and dehumanize out-group members.

An interesting recent paper – ‘Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses’ – sheds some light on these phenomena.

The authors (Cikara, Bruneau, Van Bavel, and Saxe) note the paper’s motivation:

The goal of the current investigation is to move beyond describing empathic and counter-empathic response profiles among specific social groups by examining the underlying psychological processes at play between groups more generally. (111)

Of particular interest for the authors of this study was a phenomenon known as intergroup empathy bias – the fact that we often feel less empathy for people who are not in our racial, political or social group. One novel question these authors asked was whether group entitativity influences intergroup empathy bias. Group entitativity “refers to the extent to which groups are perceived to have the nature of an entity, including unity, coherence, and organization” (113).

They tested for the influence of group entitativity by separating participants into two teams. Among other manipulations, participants read short vignettes describing good or bad things happening to people on their team, and to people on the other team. Participants also saw a visual graphic that was supposed to represent the teams as a ‘social network diagram.’ The visual graphic either depicted the two teams as in reality closely integrated as a social network, or as in reality very different – as two different groups of interconnected nodes.

The results are very interesting. As in previous experiments, empathy was higher for team members, and counter-empathy was higher for members of the other team. However, when participants saw a representation of the two teams as more integrated socially, this result was significantly attenuated. Simply representing the other team as less of a separate entity impacted the empathy participants experienced towards members of the other team.

This result is potentially of great practical significance. As the authors note,

These findings matter because a lack of empathy may allow individuals to turn a blind eye toward others’ suffering, and more importantly, feeling pleasure in response to out-group members’ misfortunes may motivate individuals to inflict, support, or condone further harm. Better understanding these dynamics may help us develop more effective interventions targeting consequential outcomes: increased hostility, conflict escalation, and harm for harm’s sake. (122)

Future research will hopefully uncover more specific information regarding the mechanisms that drive intergroup empathy bias, but this study already suggests a fairly simple and practical way we might try to counteract the morally pernicious influences of in-group membership. It is important to think less about out-groups as groups, and to think more about the features we share with out-group members. For the way we represent other people – as members of a rival group, as individuals with properties we share and value, or whatever – has important consequences for how we feel about and interact with other people.

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