Empathy Is the Key to World Peace

New research suggests that positive interactions between strangers create empathy where it wasn't before.

There is so much conflict in today’s world. Politicians are trying to figure out how to deal with gun violence issues, international relations, and vying against one another to gain control. It’s probably safe to say, given all that conflict, they (and the people who support them) don’t always feel much empathy for members of their opposing ideological groups.

In general, it looks as though the world suffers from an empathy deficit. We stick to our own groups and don’t have a lot of interest in experiencing life from another's point of view. Fortunately, it’s not too late to change that.

Researchers from the University of Zurich seem to have found a way to help people of different social groups feel empathy for one another. The study separated participants into two groups, so each person had fellow members of their “in-group” that they identified with and also those in their “out-group,” who were seen as strangers. Study participants were directed to have a positive interaction with an out-group member, and then that same out-group member was later exposed to a painful shock. The initial participant was more likely to show activity in the brain associated with empathy in witnessing the out-group member getting shocked after having had the positive interaction with them.

As Maajid Nawaz notes in the video below, it's important to put yourself in a mindset in which you're comfortable approaching those different from and/or in opposition to you:

The implications of the Zurich research are exciting. If people can feel more empathy for an out-group in an experiment in a lab, maybe we can use these findings in the real world. What if greater positive interaction between majority and minority groups could lead each to have more compassion and genuine care for one another? Most importantly, it seemed from the experiment that the empathetic response participants felt for the out-group member wasn’t just for the individual. The participant thought of all the members in the out-group with more empathy.

Perhaps we’re not as far away from a peaceful world as we might think. It would be intriguing to see what a study like this would look like when applied to more people, living everyday lives in the real world. Still, it offers hope that we're capable of much greater cultural harmony in the future.

Image Credit: Cylonphoto via Shutterstock


Stefani is a writer and urban planner based in Oakland, CA. She holds a master’s in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in Human Biology from Stanford University. In her free time, she is often found reading diverse literature, writing stories, or enjoying the outdoors. Follow her on Twitter: @stefanicox

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