Empathy With Strangers Can Be Learned In A Very Basic Way

Conflict all around the world is caused by a lack of understanding and empathy with other groups.

Conflict all around the world is caused by a lack of understanding and empathy with other groups.

People around the world are frequently in conflict with each other due to a lack of empathy.

When people don’t understand each other’s feelings, they are more likely to fight — especially if they are from different races, countries or cultures.

However, just two positive experiences with people from another group is enough to boost empathy with them, recent research finds.

The scientists were surprised as people normally take longer to learn positive associations than negative.

In the research, Swiss people were paired with those of Balkan descent.

People from the Balkans are seen as problematic immigrants by some in Switzerland.

The Swiss person expected to receive a painful electric shock to the back of the hand.

But they were apparently saved from this ordeal by someone with a typically Balkan name.

The Swiss person then observed someone else receiving a painful shock while their brain was scanned.

The brain response showed similar empathy with the other person whether they were Swiss or Balkan if they had had a positive experience with a Balkan beforehand.

Otherwise the Swiss people showed much less empathy when they saw the Balkan in pain.

Dr Grit Hein, the study’s first author, explained the results:

“These results reveal that positive experiences with a stranger are transferred to other members of this group and increase the empathy for them.”

The more positive interactions the Swiss people had with someone from the Balkans, the greater their empathic response towards them.

The study was published in the journal PNAS (Hein et al., 2015).

Brain illustration image from Shutterstock

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.