I totally empathize with you ... sometimes: Effects of empathy on ethnic group interactions

Feb 18, 2009

Increased empathy toward minority group members is one way to reduce prejudice and promote more positive inter-group relationships. When individuals take on the perspective of someone from a different group, a number of processes and feelings are set in motion that should lead to more positive feelings toward members of that group. But University of Manitoba psychologists Jacquie D. Vorauer and Stacey J. Sasaki wanted to investigate the effect of empathy in actual interactions with minority group members.

Volunteers were shown a brief segment of a documentary detailing the hardships endured by members of a minority group and were instructed to view it with an objective or an empathetic mindset. The volunteers expected to discuss the video with another study participant, who was either from the same ethnic group as they were or from the minority group depicted in the documentary. The partners never actually met; instead they had controlled interactions in which written personal information was exchanged (in reality, only the researchers read the written responses).

The results, described in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that empathy for minority groups has a much less positive effect when it is triggered in the context of an actual intergroup interaction situation than it does when directed toward minority group members in the abstract. The researchers found that the volunteers who had viewed the video with empathy and were told they were paired with a participant from a minority group reported more negative feelings towards minority group members, including greater feelings of prejudice. However, the empathetic volunteers who had been paired up with participants from their own ethnic group reported a more positive attitude towards minority group members.

The researchers surmise that empathy has a negative effect during interactions with members of the minority group because the empathetic individuals become preoccupied with how they will be viewed by that minority group. That is, these individuals focus so much on what the others will think of them (specifically, thinking about how the majority group might be viewed as prejudiced or be criticized for having mistreated the minority group in the past), that any empathy they have for the minority group takes a backseat and they begin to dwell on negative feelings that minority group members have toward them instead, which can then lead to more negative attitudes toward that group. The researchers conclude that these findings suggest that when we think about other ethnic groups in the abstract, the resulting attitudes may be very different from the feelings we actually experience during interactions with members of those groups.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Self-regulation intervention boosts school readiness of at-risk children, study shows

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Ethnic diversity reduces risk of market bubbles

Nov 18, 2014

If they consider it at all, investors likely regard ethnic diversity as a matter of social policy. But new research by an MIT Sloan professor suggests a much more practical reason to consider diversity: compared ...

Recommended for you

Brains transform remote threats into anxiety

Nov 21, 2014

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. An onslaught of news ...

Mental disorders due to permanent stress

Nov 21, 2014

Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. The effects of permanent stress on the immune system are studied by the ...

Could there be a bright side to depression?

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A group of researchers studying the roots of depression has developed a test that leads them closer to the idea that depression may actually be an adaptation meant to help people cope with ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.