New research shows that we can learn to empathize with strangers.
Researchers from the University of Zurich found that surprisingly positive experiences with people from another group trigger a learning effect in the brain, which increases empathy.
In fact, they found that only a handful of positive experiences are needed for a person to become more empathetic.
For the study, psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Grit Hein teamed with Drs. Philippe Tobler and Jan Engelmann, and graduate student Marius Vollberg, to measure brain activation in study participants who had positive experiences with a member of their own group (in-group member) or another group (out-group member).
During the test, the participants expected to receive painful shocks to the backs of their hands. However, they also discovered that a member of their own or another group could pay money to spare them pain.
The brain activation while observing pain in a person from one’s own or another group was recorded before and after these experiences.
At the beginning of the study, the stranger’s pain triggered a weaker brain activation in the participant than if a member of his or her own group was affected. However, only a handful of positive experiences with someone from the stranger’s group led to a significant increase in empathic brain responses if pain was inflicted on a different person from the out-group.
The stronger the positive experience with the stranger was, the greater the increase in neuronal empathy, the researchers discovered.
“These results reveal that positive experiences with a stranger are transferred to other members of this group and increase the empathy for them,” said Hein.