Bioethics Blogs

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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.