The Situationist

The Boston Bombings and the Cognitive Limits of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2013

Boston Marathon 2013

From Situationist friend and Harvard Law School 3L, Kate Epstein, an essay about Monday’s tragedy:

As I hear reactions to the bombings at the marathon on Monday, I find myself agreeing with Glenn Greenwald’s column in The Guardian, titled “The Boston bombing produces familiar and revealing reactions: As usual, the limits of selective empathy, the rush to blame Muslims, and the exploitation of fear all instantly emerge.” Particularly interesting to me are our cognitive limits, as humans, when it comes to empathy. Greenwald writes:

The widespread compassion for yesterday’s victims and the intense anger over the attacks was obviously authentic and thus good to witness. But it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid.

I felt the same way in the aftermath of Monday’s events, but I can also empathize with those who do care more–or at least feel it in a more real way–when the victims of a random act of violence are white, close to home, and so obviously innocent. “They, unlike the countless non-white, non-American casualties of the War on Terror, are– for me and many around me–part of our in-group, and our minds actually function in a way that makes us much more easily empathize with them.”

Studies have shown that parts of our brain associated with empathy and emotion are more likely to be activated when we observe someone of our own race, as opposed to an out-group member, in pain. This makes sense given research on unconscious bias using implicit association tests, which have been shown to predict real-life behavior outside of the lab.

The good news is that our automatic attitudes are sometimes malleable. Awareness of the differences between our egalitarian values and our implicit attitudes can induce emotional reactions that can motivate behavioral changes and help us be the empathetic and altruistic people we hope to be. On the other hand, lack of awareness combined with an inundation of negative images and stereotypes from commercial media and popular culture can reinforce implicit biases, underscoring the need for education and self-awareness.

In a world with so much violence and pain, it makes sense that we simply could not feel deeply empathetic every time a human being is injured or killed. We rightly feel intense moral outrage that someone would senselessly harm innocent people gathered in Boston yesterday, and yet we do not so easily empathize with victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, most of whom see the bombings as just as random and senseless, against victims just as innocent.

We should forgive ourselves for exhibiting these cognitive limits–after all, we are only human. But we should recognize, in these moments when we do so easily feel sorrow, anger, and compassion, those events which do not normally elicit those emotions, and force ourselves to grapple with the consequences of that fact. When we read dry, mundane news reports about human suffering, when we (rarely) hear body counts of the War on Terror (such as the estimated 122,000 violent, civilian deaths in Iraq thus far), when we are made aware of the latest unnamed drone victims in North Waziristan, let’s try to channel the empathy events like this make us feel, and then let’s turn that empathy into action.

Related Situationist posts:

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here.

2 Responses to “The Boston Bombings and the Cognitive Limits of Empathy”

  1. Reblogged this on Naive Scientist.

  2. Dave said

    I agree, people tend to feel more empathy if the people involved is someone close or lives in the same country as you are. People become biased and forget that they are also innocent individuals being hurt elsewhere. It is just the same as what’s happening in our own country but like you said, we are only humans and most of the time, this reaction happens unconsciously.

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