Publications by topic

Four Processes that Drive Intergroup Conflict and Discrimination:

Empathic Failures

Parochial Empathy Predicts Reduced Altruism and the Endorsement of Passive Harm

Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2017


Emile Bruneau, Mina Cikara, Rebecca Saxe


Empathic failures are common in hostile intergroup contexts; repairing empathy is therefore a major focus of peacebuilding efforts. However, it is unclear which aspect of empathy is most relevant to intergroup conflict. Although trait empathic concern predicts prosociality in interpersonal settings, we hypothesized that the best predictor of meaningful intergroup attitudes and behaviors might not be the general capacity for empathy (i.e., trait empathy), but the difference in empathy felt for the in-group versus the out-group, or “parochial empathy.” Specifically, we predicted that out-group empathy would inhibit intergroup harm and promote intergroup helping, whereas in-group empathy would have the opposite effect. In three intergroup contexts—Americans regarding Arabs, Hungarians regarding refugees, Greeks regarding Germans—we found support for this hypothesis. In all samples, in-group and out-group empathy had independent, significant, and opposite effects on intergroup outcomes, controlling for trait empathic concern.

Their Pain Gives Us Pleasure: How Intergroup Dynamics Shape Empathic Failures and Counter-Empathic Responses

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2014


M.Cikara, E.Bruneau, J.J.Van Bavel, R. Saxe


Despite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not inevitable; people routinely fail to empathize with others, especially members of different social or cultural groups. In five experiments, we systematically explore how social identity, functional relations between groups, competitive threat, and perceived entitativity contribute to intergroup empathy bias: the tendency not only to empathize less with out-group relative to in-group members, but also to feel pleasure in response to their pain (and pain in response to their pleasure). When teams are set in direct competition, affective responses to competition-irrelevant events are characterized not only by less empathy toward out-group relative to in-group members, but also by increased counter-empathic responses: Schadenfreude and Glückschmerz (Experiment 1). Comparing responses to in-group and out-group targets against responses to unaffiliated targets in this competitive context suggests that intergroup empathy bias may be better characterized by out-group antipathy rather than extraordinary in-group empathy (Experiment 2). We also find that intergroup empathy bias is robust to changes in relative group standing—feedback indicating that the out-group has fallen behind (Experiment 3a) or is no longer a competitive threat (Experiment 3b) does not reduce the bias. However, reducing perceived in-group and out-group entitativity can significantly attenuate intergroup empathy bias (Experiment 4). This research establishes the boundary conditions of intergroup empathy bias and provides initial support for a more integrative framework of group-based empathy.

Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy

Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2017


Mina Cikara, Emile G. Bruneau, Rebecca R. Saxe


People are often motivated to increase others’ positive experiences and to alleviate others’ suffering. These tendencies to care about and help one another form the foundation of human society. When the target is an outgroup member, however, people may have powerful motivations not to care about or help that “other.” In such cases, empathic responses are rare and fragile; it is easy to disrupt the chain from perception of suffering to motivation to alleviate the suffering to actual helping. We highlight recent interdisciplinary research demonstrating that outgroup members’ suffering elicits dampened empathic responses as compared to ingroup members’ suffering. We consider an alternative to empathy in the context of intergroup competition: schadenfreude—pleasure at others’ pain. Finally, we review recent investigations of intergroup-conflict interventions that attempt to increase empathy for outgroups. We propose that researchers across the range of psychological sciences stand to gain a better understanding of the foundations of empathy by studying its limitations.

How We Know It Hurts: Item Analysis of Written Narratives Reveals Distinct Neural Responses to Others’ Physical Pain and Emotional Suffering

PLOS ONE, 2013


Emile Bruneau, Nicholas Dufour, Rebecca Saxe


People are often called upon to witness, and to empathize with, the pain and suffering of others. In the current study, we directly compared neural responses to others’ physical pain and emotional suffering by presenting participants (n = 41) with 96 verbal stories, each describing a protagonist’s physical and/or emotional experience, ranging from neutral to extremely negative. A separate group of participants rated “how much physical pain”, and “how much emotional suffering” the protagonist experienced in each story, as well as how “vivid and movie-like” the story was. Although ratings of Pain, Suffering and Vividness were positively correlated with each other across stories, item-analyses revealed that each scale was correlated with activity in distinct brain regions. Even within regions of the “Shared Pain network” identified using a separate data set, responses to others’ physical pain and emotional suffering were distinct. More broadly, item analyses with continuous predictors provided a high-powered method for identifying brain regions associated with specific aspects of complex stimuli – like verbal descriptions of physical and emotional events.

Distinct Roles of the ‘Shared Pain’ and ‘Theory of Mind’ Networks in Processing Others’ Emotional Suffering

Neuropsychologia, 2012


Emile G.Bruneau, Agnieszka Pluta, Rebecca Saxe


The brain mechanisms involved in processing another’s physical pain have been extensively studied in recent years. The link between understanding others’ physical pain and emotional suffering is less well understood. Using whole brain analysis and two separate functional localizers, we characterized the neural response profiles of narrative scenarios involving physical pain (PP), and scenarios involving emotional pain (EP) with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Whole brain analyses revealed that PP narratives activated the Shared Pain network, and that the brain regions responsible for processing EP overlapped substantially with brain regions involved in Theory of Mind. Region of interest (ROI) analysis provided a finer-grained view. Some regions responded to stories involving physical states, regardless of painful content (secondary sensory regions), some selectively responded to both emotionally and physically painful events (bilateral anterior thalamus and anterior middle cingulate cortex), one brain region responded selectively to physical pain (left insula), and one brain region responded selectively to emotional pain (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex). These results replicated in two groups of participants given different explicit tasks. Together, these results clarify the distinct roles of multiple brain regions in responding to others who are in physical or emotional pain.

Social Cognition in Members of Conflict Groups: Behavioural and Neural Responses in Arabs, Israelis and South Americans to Each Other’s Misfortunes

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2012


Bruneau, E., Dufour, N., & Saxe, R.


In contexts of cultural conflict, people delegitimize the other group’s perspective and lose compassion for the other group’s suffering. These psychological biases have been empirically characterized in intergroup settings, but rarely in groups involved in active conflict. Similarly, the basic brain networks involved in recognizing others’ narratives and misfortunes have been identified, but how these brain networks are modulated by intergroup conflict is largely untested. In the present study, we examined behavioural and neural responses in Arab, Israeli and South American participants while they considered the pain and suffering of individuals from each group. Arabs and Israelis reported feeling significantly less compassion for each other’s pain and suffering (the ‘conflict outgroup’), but did not show an ingroup bias relative to South Americans (the ‘distant outgroup’). In contrast, the brain regions that respond to others’ tragedies showed an ingroup bias relative to the distant outgroup but not the conflict outgroup, particularly for descriptions of emotional suffering. Over all, neural responses to conflict group members were qualitatively different from neural responses to distant group members. This is the first neuroimaging study to examine brain responses to others’ suffering across both distant and conflict groups, and provides a first step towards building a foundation for the biological basis of conflict.