Adam Waytz in Nautilus:
The world seems to be getting more empathetic. Americans donate to charity at record rates. People feel the pain of suffering in geographically distant countries brought to our attention by advances in communications and transportation. Violence, seen on historical timescales, is decreasing. The great modern humanitarian project of expanding the scope of our empathy to include the entire human race seems to be working. Our in-group (those we choose to include in our inner circle and to spend our energies on) is growing, and our out-group (everybody else) shrinking. But there’s a wrinkle in this perfect picture: Our instinctive tendency to categorize the world into “us” and “them” is difficult to overcome. It is in our nature to favor helping in-group members like friends, family, or fellow citizens, and to neglect or even punish out-group members. Even as some moral circles expand, others remain stubbornly fixed, or even contract: Just think of Democrats and Republicans, Sunnis and Shiites, Duke and North Carolina basketball fans. The endpoint of the liberal humanitarian project, which is universal empathy, would mean no boundary between in-group and out-group. In aiming for this goal, we must fight our instincts. That is possible, to a degree. Research confirms that people can strengthen their moral muscles and blur the divide between in-group and out-group. Practicing meditation, for example, can increase empathy, improving people’s ability to decode emotions from people’s facial expressions1 and making them more likely to offer a chair2 to someone with crutches. Simply increasing people’s beliefs in the malleability of empathy increases the empathy they express toward ideologically and racially dissimilar others.3 And when all else fails, people respond to financial gain. My co-authors and I have shown that introducing monetary incentives for accurate perspective-taking increased Democrats’ and Republicans’ ability to understand each other and to believe that political resolutions were possible.4
But these exercises can take us only so far. In fact, there is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.