Posted in Conflict, Empathy, Groups, social change

New Insights on Empathy in Intergroup Conflict

After spending most of my professional life in the conflict resolution field, I have to admit to experiencing a growing frustration with the state of the field in recent years. There have been times when I have felt that various parts of the field were stuck in their own ideologies, with the result that some interventions seemed to be based on little more than assumptions, research on efficacy of interventions was slow to accumulate, and mythology was revered while research results were ignored. Meanwhile, I looked around me and asked what real change has come from years of experimentation with conflict resolution strategies. I have sometimes been discouraged by my conclusions, especially as I watched intergroup conflicts continue to unfold both locally and internationally that could only be described as tribal – whether the tribes in question were ethnic, racial, socio-economic, religious or political. All this, coupled with my own experiences as a user of various conflict management processes, led to a scholar-practitioner’s existential crisis, prompting such questions as “How do we know what we think we know?” “What if we are wrong?” and “”What if we are doing more harm than good?”

So, I was heartened today to learn of the work of Dr. Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An article by Jeneen Interlandi in The New York Times Magazine featured Dr. Bruneau’s work studying prejudice against the Roma in Eastern Europe. Dr. Bruneau has been studying intractable conflicts around the world for some time and also has some first-hand experience with conflict management programs. As Interlandi reports,

He started looking into conflict-intervention programs and discovered that there were hundreds more like the one he volunteered for in Ireland, and that hardly any of them had been scientifically validated. No one was really checking to see if the programs accomplished their stated goals, or even if their stated goals were the best ones for achieving the desired outcomes. “They have all these very straightforward metrics like building trust, and building empathy, that sound totally reasonable,” Bruneau says. “But it turns out that a lot of those common-sense approaches can be way off-base.”

Dr. Bruneau suspected that trait empathy – how empathetic a person is by nature – does not fully explain how that person will or will not behave in the course of intergroup conflict. He proposed that the mind creates an “empathy gap” when a person considers the situation of an enemy, and this empathy gap mutes or dampens the empathy signal for the enemy. The strength of the empathy gap depended on the strength of ingroup identification. It was this empathy gap that explained intergroup conflict.

The article stimulated my curiosity, so I visited Dr. Bruneau’s website at MIT.  Here are brief descriptions of two of his research programs that stood out for me.

Parochial Empathy. Dr. Bruneau distinguishes various types of empathy and has articulated the concept of “parochial empathy,” which is experiencing greater empathy for ingroup members than outgroup members. Parochial empathy can explain behavior during intergroup conflict. Dr. Bruneau has found interventions that mitigate parochial empathy, including the use of certain kinds of narratives (Ah! Now we are in my field!)

Perspective-taking and Perspective-giving. Dr. Bruneau found that both sides of an asymmetrical conflict were not equally affected by perspective-taking. While the more powerful side did experience positive effects from perspective-taking, the less powerful side actually benefitted more from “perspective-giving:” speaking and being listened to (Again, my field!).

I appreciate Dr. Bruneau’s approach of questioning the taken-for-granted common sense of conflict processes and interventions. His research is challenging some long-held assumptions with evidence. At the same time, his work is deepening our understanding of fundamental conflict processes and shedding new light on possible interventions. As Bruneau stated in Interlandi’s interview,

“I get that these are complicated problems,” he told me. “I get that there isn’t going to be any one magic solution. But if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.”

I encourage you to visit Dr. Bruneau’s website and read his publications  for more. The research is exciting, fresh, promising, and relevant.


Interlandi, J. (2015, March 19). The brain’s empathy gap. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

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