SEATTLE — As organizations and higher education institutions act to engage citizens, create social change and address social issues, it’s important to consider how to create advocates and activists. In doing so, studies on empathy and in-group biases have much to offer.
By definition, empathy has two major components: understanding someone else’s world and feeling the reality of that world. These are respectively called cognitive and affective components.
Studies have shown that expressions and feelings of empathy are affected by an individual’s proximity to the other individual and whether or not the other individual is a member of his or her in-group. Simply put, we empathize more with those we better understand and those in similar situations to ours.
As issues within global poverty are distant, abstract conceptions for many in the developed world, addressing the “empathy deficit” is of increasing concern. The term “empathy deficit” is gaining buzz and for good reason; when, psychologically speaking, a situation is out of our scope of understanding, it is easier and less time-consuming to dismiss it as someone else’s problem or someone else who is closer to that situation.
Domestically, this is shown through the recent surge of nationalism and xenophobia. Addressing implicit biases in how individuals view others is an arduous challenge that requires honesty and motivation for change. Studies on empathy suggest that people are more likely to empathize with those of the same race, once again indicating the power of the in-group.
Therefore, to increase empathy, perhaps a possibility is to increase what an individual considers his or her “in-group.” When one is not just an individual of his or her hometown or his or her country, but of the world, he or she is more likely to be an active advocate and activist. “Not my problem” loses its validity.
The question lies, then, in how to mold an individual into a global citizen and how to cultivate culturally responsive critical thinkers. Whose responsibility is it? Where is a good place for it? How does one translate this sense of responsibility into activism?
Perhaps one solution is with higher education. Need-blind admissions processes and diversity initiatives can help expose students to realities of those from backgrounds and nationalities different from theirs.
General requirements, such as those at many liberal arts colleges and state universities, that include exposure and analysis of other cultures can help promote critical thinking.
Panels, discussion groups and dialogues can be used to cultivate cultural responsiveness and self-reflection. In order to cultivate activists and keep them motivated in the fight against global poverty, awareness, outrage and dedication to social justice are key.
– Priscilla McCelvey