He gently picks up the elderly woman who has fallen on the ice, careful not to squeeze her arm too tightly. He notices that she is limping and he helps her to a bench where he wraps her coat tighter around her frail body. Tears fall from her eyes at the pain she feels from her hip that she hopes is not broken. He gently wipes the tears from her wrinkled cheeks. He would do this for his mother, his daughter, his wife, even his neighbor. Maybe someone else in his town, maybe. Maybe a stranger… if he had time. Someone from another ethnic group? Less likely.
We as humans are capable of such tenderness, such care and empathy for others. We feel their pain, we ease burdens, we love. We give of ourselves, we provide for our children even if it means we have less, some of us would even die for those we love. But where does empathy end… and apathy begin… and lead to callousness…and even violence?
How can this same man hold a rifle in battle, kill women and children in foreign countries? How can he disregard their pain? The cries of another human being, whom he has hurt rather than helped? How can he yell at coworkers, rage at bad drivers, be short with the checkout lady? Where is his empathy then? Where does empathy stop and violence begin? How can we as humans be so callous to some people’s suffering while tenderly nurturing other people?
Our own group of people get our care while other groups of people usually do not. In-group outgroup bias says that in-group members will relate to each other in favorable ways but they will relate to members of outgroups in less favorable ways (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). In-group members tend to give more support, assistance and compassion to members of their own group. When conflict arises, in-group members are given more slack, judged less than outgroup members, and forgiven more easily. In-group extremity effect says that we see those in our own group in ways that are exaggeratedly positive (In-group extremity, 2018). We tend to be more understanding of them and believe that negative events that happened to them occur more often for external causes then for internal causes. We are quick to believe in their goodness and that anything negative was the result of circumstances. Contrarily for outgroup members, whom we are less likely to understand and be connected to, we attribute negative events in their life to internal factors like their own ignorance, incompetence or even wickedness. This leads to negative stereotypical views. You often hear people talking about other groups as simply bad or evil. If we can step back and look at the humanity of the other group and realize that what they are doing comes out of their own needs, then we can see their interconnectedness to ourselves. We can see them as people just like we are.
Positive intergroup contact has been shown to reduce levels of violent tendencies in both advantaged and disadvantaged outgroups (Saab, Harb, & Moughalian, 2017). The key here is positive. Intergroup contact in general may not lead to better relations, since the more powerful group is frequently seen as disenfranchising the lesser group in some way, maybe through thoughtless condescending comments or attitudes (Schneider et al., 2012). But when contact truly is positive, relations get better. How does this relate to in-group outgroup theories? When we have positive contact with those in other groups it helps us feel connected to them. Our groups are no longer so separate. We may start to assimilate them mentally closer into our own group, which leads to better cognitions about them.
But people take the path of least resistance. It’s easier to rise up in defense of our views than to listen openly to someone we don’t agree with. While empathy can break down barriers, defensiveness can provoke attacks from the other side (Böhm, Rusch, & Gürerk, 2016). When we are defensive instead of empathetic, we are not connecting. We are not on the same team, not part of the same tribe, not recognizing the other’s humanness and needs. However, if we continue to listen, we will eventually get to a real human need that we can identify with.
In “Nonviolent communication,” international peacemaker Marshall Rosenberg tells a story in which he was meeting with leaders from Palestine and Israel to try to talk about compromise and make efforts toward peace. He was accosted by a Palestinian man who used abusive tone and language, yelling “Murderer! Child-killer!” regarding Rosenberg’s citizenship in the US which was supplying Israel with weapons. The man demanded to know whether Rosenberg had any idea how hard it was to live in a place where your children are at risk even going to school? Rather than get defensive or react angrily, Rosenberg listened with compassion and apologized for the fear and stress that the man and his family have had to live through. He kept this up through 20 minutes of the man’s onslaughts. This empathy eventually broke down the man’s wall of armor and he started to feel understood and cared about. Rosenberg had reached across groups and connected in a positive humanitarian way that led to such genuine care that he ended up being invited into the man’s home, now part of his tribe.
How can we lessen violence toward people outside of our group? Build empathy toward all humans, regardless of which group they are in?
We need a viewpoint that see humans as all part of one big group, rather than focusing on differences. One such viewpoint is the Christian faith. It is made up of those who have faith in Jesus no matter what cultural or ethnic group they belong to. It is one body, spread throughout the world, crossing country and party lines. Some of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount include directives of how to treat others. “Do unto others as you would like them to do to you.” “If a man asks you to walk with him a mile, walk with him two.” One of the boldest statements is “Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5, paraphrased). This is really getting outside of our in-group. Stopping to help a hurt person who is a stranger is one thing, but having empathy for an actual enemy?
Perhaps this is why Jesus said that whoever follows him and does the will of his Father is his mother, sister and brother. This puts all Christians in the same in-group of a big family. Yet Jesus’ directive is to have empathy for all outside this family as well. When a lawyer asked him how to fulfill the law of love, Jesus answered with a parable of a man who was hurt on the side of the road. A Levite and a priest both passed by and didn’t help, but finally a Samaritan, a man from a hated out-group of the Jews, stopped. He had empathy for this Jew, his ethnic enemy, a stranger. He cleaned his wounds, brought him to an inn, cared for him and left money for his further care. This was Jesus’ example of how to love. He shows us that there should be no out-groups in humanity. Love should pass over ethnic and cultural lines, even gender and religious ones. For “Christians” throughout the ages have in fact been the cause of much bloodshed, whether in battle, or through “just war,” or even through interpersonal violence. Just having the label “Christian” does not make someone so. It’s through actions that our true nature is known. By stopping to help, by loving, by caring, we show that the stranger is really part of our humanity. She is part of our in-group, part of our tribe. She… IS my neighbor, my sister, my mother.
Böhm, R., Rusch, H., & Gürerk, Ö. (2016). What makes people go to war? Defensive intentions motivate retaliatory and preemptive intergroup aggression. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(1), 29-34.
Ingroup extremity effect. (2018). APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved on Feb. 15, 2019 from: https://dictionary.apa.org/ingroup-extremity-effect.
Rosenberg, M. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.
Saab, R., Harb, C. & Moughalian, C. (2017). Intergroup contact as a predictor of violent and nonviolent collective action: Evidence from Syrian refugees and Lebanese nationals. Journal of Peace Psychology, 23(3), 297-306.
Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.