Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing from their perspective, or as it is sometimes phrased “to walk a mile in their shoes”. When we can empathize with others we are in a much better position to manage conflicts with them. Conflict is the natural result of having different views and opinions regarding the challenges that all of us face on a daily basis. But a lack of empathy toward others can intensify and exacerbate conflict by manifesting itself as prejudice, stereotyping, and bullying.
We can improve our ability to mitigate and resolve conflicts through a better understanding of the barriers that inhibit our natural empathic inclinations. An important factor in our ability to empathize with others is our social identity - how we perceive ourselves as members of groups.
Social Identity Theory (SIT) is a school of thought in social psychology that asserts that we derive a significant part of our self-esteem from the groups to which we belong. SIT shows how decisions that people believe are personal actually are expressions of their group identity and the needs of their group.
According to SIT the formation of groups go through three stages:
An SIT study by Jane Elliot demonstrated how being part of a group affects how you view yourself, and your behavior towards other groups. Elliot’s “Blue-eye/Brown-eye Study” segregated a primary school class into two groups based on their eye color.
Those conducting the study told the blue-eyed kids that blue eyes meant that you were smarter, quicker, and more successful and gave them privileges. They told the brown-eyed kids that brown eyes meant that you were lazy, untruthful, and stupid. The blue-eyed group became bossy, arrogant, and smarter and showed discriminatory behavior toward the brown-eyed group. The brown-eyed kids became timid, submissive, and performed less well academically.
They reversed the roles a few days later and told the brown-eyed kids that they were the “better” group. The same thing happened, this time with brown-eyes discriminating against the blue-eyed group. Clearly self-esteem for the kids was a function of which group they were associated with, and impacted how their group interacted with the “other” group as well as how they performed academically.
If you see yourself as being part of a social group your must ask yourself how your group identity influences your attitudes, your decisions, and your self-esteem. Do you feel better about yourself because your group is “better” “smarter’ or more “right”, than another group? If so, you are forfeiting an opportunity to experience the empathy for others that can help to reduce or eliminate conflicts.
Having empathy for those belonging to different groups from your own requires that your self-esteem be based more on your personal identity than that of a social or group identity. It means that who you are personally is more important in interacting with others than any social identity that we adopt as members of a group. It means that your ability to overcome differences and to resolve conflicts comes from a broader sense of who you are beyond any group.
Having empathy for people from “other” groups is not an easy task especially when many of “your” group members attempt to enhance their self-esteem by putting down other groups. Psychologist Carl Rogers characterizes the difficulty of being empathetic as follows:
"To be with another in this way means that for the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another's world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside your self and this can only be done by a person who is secure enough in himself that he knows he will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and can comfortably return to his own world when he wishes.”
Laying aside our own views and values and entering someone else’s world without pre-judgments requires a level of personal identity and security that is challenging to say the least. It requires a sincere desire to respectfully listen to someone else. But for those who are sufficiently motivated to step into this dark and threatening world of someone else’s feelings, the rewards can be well worth the effort. When we can put ourselves into the shoes of others we create a bridge of understanding and compassion that can begin to heal the wide gulf that separates many segments of our society.
Given the propensity of people to attach their self-esteem to group membership, what is the path forward that leads to improving relationships between groups? For groups like the primary school kids in Elliot’s study the answer might be to instruct them on how their eye color plays no part in who they are as people (their self-esteem) and to encourage them through positive inclusiveness to behave as smart, caring, and empathetic kids.
Many strategies to tackle discrimination and prejudice can work by getting people to expand their sense of social identity. If people see themselves and their neighbors as all members of a larger group, social comparison of “us” being better than “them” will stop. Ultimately the largest group that we all inhabit is that of the human race. No matter which neighborhood, city, state, or country we call our own, we all ultimately belong to one community of human beings. If we all begin to see ourselves as members of that human community our empathy for each other can create a foundation for overcoming the many social conflicts that face each of us as individuals and collectively as inhabitants of planet earth.