An Empathetic Approach to Prejudice


In the first post of this series, I unpacked implicit prejudice and how it affects all of us on a day-to-day basis. The key idea in that discussion was that, as much as we would like to believe that we can make deliberate, controlled judgments and decisions when interacting with someone, the inevitable outcome is largely the product of many underlying, intersecting associations, generalizations and preconceptions that we just aren’t consciously aware of. So, what can we do about it? To this end, it might seem reasonable to look for ways to shift judgements towards a more conscious and controlled manner. This approach has its merits as the ‘slow’ and ‘mindfulness’ movements have shown. However, trying to be consistently deliberate as we move from moment to moment through our everyday lives just isn’t practical; cognitively it’s unrealistic. The part of our brains that is required for enabling these more deliberate, executive functions has a finite capacity, and this gets depleted very quickly.

Our brains have evolved to deal with this sort of cognitive overload by outsourcing lower-level, habitual thinking to the subconscious processes. This is why when we’re first learning to drive, for example, everything is very deliberate. We have to consciously think about putting on the indicator, or going into second gear. After a while, however, it becomes ‘second nature’; these processes get encoded into our subconscious, freeing up mental capacity to have a meaningful conversation with a passenger, or think about our plans for the day ahead.

Although this lower-level, automatic thinking is necessary, and at times entirely useful, it is also what gets us into trouble. Its purpose is not accuracy but efficiency - just making sure that we get by. It’s also not good at dealing with change, especially when that change goes against the grain of our habituated thinking. To complement this, our brain tends to seek out information that confirms established beliefs, while filtering out the information that goes against them. It is as if, without any intervention, our judgements, beliefs and habitual thought patterns would continually organize and crystalize into unchangeable structures. This (only) makes sense if the goal is efficiency, not an accurate, objective interpretation of the world around us.

This raises a question: knowing that our minds have this tendency to organize, categorize and encode patterns into our subconscious, how do we make sure that what is encoded is as accurate as possible? And further, if inaccurate patterns have already been encoded - producing biased generalizations and stereotypes - how do we disrupt the current patterns and replace them with more accurate ones?

These are complex questions, and that is without the admission that we are only just beginning to get to grips with how the human brain actually works. In disclaiming this, I offer my thoughts as nothing more than suggestions to be explored. They are not concrete answers, but rather areas in which solutions might exist.

Where Might There be Solutions?

One area that could hold a lot of promise is empathy. But what is empathy? When asked this question, the go-to responses are things like “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” or “seeing things from another’s perspective”. These responses are correct, however their sense and simplicity offers us a convenient ‘out’ from exploring the phenomenon’s vast complexity and inherent beauty. In order to use empathy effectively as a tool against harmful implicit prejudice, we first need to embrace its complexity; we need to build an augmented understanding of what it really is, and how it works.

The Three Ways We Empathise:

Empathy isn’t as concrete a phenomenon as many people would like to believe. Rather it is better to think of it as an umbrella term that holds within it three interrelated processes, which allow us to understand and respond to another.

To understand the distinctions between these three processes, I’ll share a useful scenario that empathy expert Jamil Zaki uses. Imagine you are walking along the street when you come across a highly distressed, frantic individual. Several things might happen.

  1. You could respond by mimicking the mental state of the highly distressed person, taking on their emotional experience. In a sense you feel what they are feeling. This is called experience sharing.
  2. You might also respond by thinking about how the distressed person is feeling, and why they feel the way that they do. You try to take on their perspective without judgement. This more deliberate, explicit consideration of the world as someone else sees it is the second process, namely mentalising.
  3. The third process is a more active outcome than the other two. Let’s say you responded by developing concern for the state of the distressed person, and this concern lead you to feel motivated to help. This is what is called empathetic concern, known more generally as compassion.

Empathy, importantly, is also distinct from sympathy, which is a more detached form of pity. Brene Brown has a nice thought experiment for this.

Imagine someone is in a deep dark hole and they say, “I’m stuck, it’s dark, and I’m overwhelmed”. In this case empathy would be climbing down into the hole and saying “I’m here, I know what it’s like and you’re not alone.” Sympathy would be standing at the top of the hole, offering your pity or finding causes for optimism and ways that you think you will make things better for them. This considered approach towards understanding another, and engaging with their world, is what sets empathy apart from our other psychological phenomena.

There are a few things can be learnt from this:

The first is that purely the fact that we have the mental framework which enables us to empathise tells us an important story about how the mind works. The level of sociability, attachment and cooperation that we are driven to achieve is accessible because our minds are capable of experiencing the plight of another as if it where our own. Evidence of this can even be seen at a neurological level. Our brains contain mirror neurons that serve the specific function of helping us ‘feel’ the experience of the other as if it were our own.

The serendipitous discovery of mirror neurons

Scientists were conducting MRI tests on a young capuchin monkey. They wanted to determine which areas of the brain would light up when the monkey cracked open a nut that it wanted to eat. During a break in testing, a co-worker walked into the lab. He innocently grabbed and tried to open one of the nuts. Right before his eyes, the monkey watched as the scientist struggled he had moments before. Fortunately, the MRI scanner was still on. Incredibly, it showed that the brain pattern that lit up was very similar to what was seen moments before when the monkey was physically opening the nuts himself.

Although it is clear that our minds are structured in a manner that makes empathy possible, it is also important to understand that being empathetic is incredibly psychologically taxing. It takes a lot of cognitive and emotional energy to empathise with someone, let alone everyone, effectively, and it can lead you to a mental state that might be more painful than the one you were in when you initially went into the interaction. Some argue it can even lead to a sort of ‘empathetic fatigue’. It is also useful to think of empathy as more of a choice, whether it be implicit or explicit, than just an impulsive reaction. Our minds need to be able to manage it. Empathy is like energy in a sense; it is a scarce resource that can literally ‘run out’ if we push it too far.

Besides being managed, we can also choose to minimize empathy in certain situations which require us to be defensive or competitive. It would be self-destructive for a tribe of ancient humans to take the time to empathise with each and every attacking member of a neighbouring tribe. A more contemporary example would be a flank on the side of a scrum; it is important to keep empathy to a minimum when thinking about the hit you have to put on the opposition flyhalf to stop them from slotting a drop goal. Conversely, there are other situations in which we are motivated to maximize our empathetic tendencies. A mother understanding her child is a simple example of this.

This insight - that we’re more empathetic in certain situations and less so in others - is fascinating because it brings with it the idea that empathy is often a choice, be it an implicit one, based on our judgements and expectations. Seeing empathy in this way also exposes us to its limits and the inherent bias that it creates. The greatest danger in this is nicely captured in our example of the flyhalf. We are often less empathetic to people that we judge to be competitors, threats, outsiders, those defined by difference. This is true even when these ‘boundaries’ between us are completely arbitrary. Social scientists have, for example, shown that by simply dividing a sample group up into a blue and a red team, and then giving them a series of tasks that test for empathy, participants are more likely to experience empathy for a fellow team member than for a member in the ‘other’ group.

This tendency might have had its advantages in the past, but in the contemporary world ‘the outsiders’, those different from us, should be the groups that we are trying to show the most empathy towards as they are the ones with whom we cooperate and interact with the least.

The depth of this tendency can be observed when neuroscientists look at the brain under an fMRI scanner. What they see is that these mirror neurons which enable empathy are, for example, significantly more active in response to someone from their ‘in-group’ – whether that is a fellow woman, Hispanic or a red team member - as opposed to the facial expressions of a perceived ‘outsider’. This is not because we can’t empathise with ‘others’, but because we often implicitly, subconsciously choose not to.

Although the fact that apathy is a choice is a sad thought, within it exists a massive opportunity, and potentially a solution to the first challenge of disrupting our negative implicit prejudice.

You see, the way that we determine an ‘in-group’ and ‘outgroup’ has been shown by social scientists to be extremely malleable across time and in different contexts. A key characteristic that helps us define someone as ‘in’ or ‘out’ is the most salient characteristics at that specific point in time - the things that we are paying the most attention to. If our attention is drawn towards the differences between someone else and ourselves (I’m from Germany, he’s from Syria; I’m black, she’s white; I’m Christian, he’s an atheist) then we mentally categorise them as part of the outgroup and, according to the neuroscience at least, will be less likely to empathise with them.

However, if the most salient characteristics are something that we share with another, something that we have in common (that we both support the same football seem, we both believe in environmental sustainability, we can see in each other the things that make us human) then the other person is perceived as part of the ‘in-group’, as ‘like us’.

"We need to focus on what we have in common in order to start appreciating the differences."

This simple shift in attention triggers an empathetic response, allowing us to see past difference, to start empathising and understanding one another.

Constantly thinking about our differences, makes us more different

This idea uncovers a dangerous hypocrisy that exists in modern society; the more that we focus on our differences, the more these differences become the most salient, go-to characteristics that we see when we interact with someone on the other side of this arbitrary line in the sand, and therefore the more we see them as an ‘outsider’; in short the less we care. This is not to say that conversation around difference shouldn’t continue; it is incredibly important that it does. Ignoring and collapsing all of our differences can be just as dangerous. Looking forward, however, it is important that the implications of this are taken into consideration.

Shifting attention towards shared characteristics gets people to open up and allows for a deeper understanding of who we are as individuals sharing a world. This sort of understanding is crucial because it is the second and most important part in fully empathising with someone. We tend to avoid empathising with people we don’t know or understand. By choosing to understand the experience of others, we learn about who they are and this leads us to become more empathetic toward them, which then leads to further understanding – a perpetual cycle of empathy.

Apart from the shared-characteristics approach, we can also use an understanding-focused approach as a stand-alone tactic. Social scientists have shown, for example, that by simply exposing people to fictional stories about the lives of an unfamiliar ethnic group, people showed a higher level of empathy towards that group. Another way this approach can be used is by placing people within a specific context that the unfamiliar group exists within. This ethnographic submersion leads us to rapidly understand the ’others’, their cultural nuances and contexts, and leads to more empathetic responses when someone else from this particular background at a later stage.

Empathy in Response to Implicit Prejudice

By getting people to empathise we expose their preconceived implicit assumptions of the world to new, more accurate patterns, creating a cognitive dissonance that brings those old assumptions into question; we cause a disruption.

This disruption forces the mind to recalibrate, taking the new information into consideration and thereby forming a more in-depth understanding of ‘the other’, and the (in)accuracy of the prejudices associated with them. This process - empathise, disrupt and recalibrate - should then be repeated continuously towards the most objectively accurate understanding of one another that is possible. As a collaborator of mine describes it, we are basically using empathy to ‘fine-tune’ our biased prejudices towards others.

Repetition also Leads to Consolidation

After a while the continual exposure to the ‘different’ person or group will begin to produce patterns which then consolidate to form a new perspective, with new core assumptions and hopefully more accurate judgements and decisions. Once these patterns have formed it is important to continue exposing them to information that confirms their existence. This will help the patterns to sink into subconscious, forming a new set of beliefs.

This active repetition can be done in two ways. The first is simply by sustaining your exposure to the group that you might be biased towards, thereby letting the patterns continue to form, consolidate and crystalize in an organic manner. Alternatively, if you have consciously identified a specific pattern that you would like to actively impress into your subconscious, then a structured approach might be more useful.

One such approach is psycho-cybernetics, a school of thought coined by Maxwell Maltz, to look at how we can deliberately exploit the brain’s pattern-recognizing capacities. Maltz showed that by deliberately exposing your brain to specific patterns repetitively, and in specific ways, we can wire our brains to implicitly look out for the patterns out in the world that relate to them. You, in a sense, subconsciously pull out the information from everyday encounters that are meaningful and relevant to the initial conscious impression you deliberately exposed your brain to.

Although psycho-cybernetics has mostly been applied in areas such as self-regulation and entrepreneurship, I think it has a lot of potential in solving the core challenges of implicit prejudice.

Getting Practical

In an attempt to provide some sort of actionable take out from a largely theoretical piece, I have put together a simple methodology based on learnings from the psychology of empathy and psycho-cybernetics below. Hopefully it can be questioned, tested, adjusted and eventually a useful application can be developed that helps to contribute towards the massive invisible headache that is preventing diversity and cooperation from progressing.

The Methodology: An Empathetic Approach to Negative Implicit Bias

1.Use empathy to disrupt your unhealthy, harmful implicit prejudices. How this could be done?

  • Reframe the way that you define your in-group and outgroup by focusing less of your attention on the differences, and more on the shared characteristics.
  • Put yourself in different cultural environments that expose your mind to the everyday lives of those with whom you might have a negative implicit prejudice towards, whether these are people of different income brackets, ages, races, genders, sexualities or soccer clubs.
  • Read stories detailing the lives of others that you not might be familiar with.
  • Learn about specific individuals that defy your generalizations, such as successful female surgeons.
The key here is disruption, but what you also want to come out of this is a new intention. You want to take this new information about the world and use it to form an accurate conscious intention around what you would like to look for.

2. Once you have disrupted the pattern of thought containing the negative implicit prejudice, the next step would be to deliberately impress a more accurate generalization through repeated exposure. How could this be done?

  • Focus in on specific characteristics that you have in common with those you used to see as being so ‘different’. One thing that is undeniable, no matter what your beliefs, is that we are all human, with inherent dignity and worth; that we all share a world, even if you may not want to. .
  • This impression could then be cemented by writing about it repetitively and reflecting on those writings on a regular basis.
This mirrors the traditional psych-cybernetics approach, where you are deliberately exposing your mind to a specific pattern repetitively until it becomes familiar at a subconscious level, triggering your mind to search for it as you go about the world.
  • Alternatively you could let the new pattern develop organically by repetitively placing yourself in the previously mentioned different cultural environments. By continuous exposure to these worlds of difference, over time you will force your mind to challenge its underlying assumptions and adjust its generalizations.
Whether the more deliberate or more organic approach is used here, the objective is to consolidate and crystalize the new, more accurate patterns into your subconscious in order to form new and more accurate judgements towards others.

If you have any feedback on this approach or just on approaches in dealing with prejudice in general, please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Did you enjoy this post? Sign up for our Being Human Bulletin here.