Research Explores How to Encourage Empathy for Groups and the Power of Perspective-Taking | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

March 24, 2021by Natalie Davis0

Summary of:

Miron, A. M., Branscombe, N. R., Lishner, D. A., Otradovec, A. C., Frankowski, S., Bowers, H. R., Wierzba, B. L., & Malcore, M. (2020). Group-level perspective-taking effects on injustice standards and empathic concern when the victims are categorized as outgroup versus ingroup. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 42(5), 305-323. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2020.1768096

Background & Theory

The purpose of this research was to better understand how to encourage empathy for groups (ingroup and outgroup) through the use of perspective-taking.

Research Questions

Miron et al., in “Group-level perspective-taking effects on injustice standards and empathic concern when the victims are categorized as outgroup versus ingroup” (2020), sought to address the following questions:

    1. How might perspective-taking influence one’s ability to feel empathy and require lower injustice standards for a group?
    2. Is there a difference for ingroup vs. outgroup?

Methods

The authors conducted 4 studies, all of which overall focused on the gender wage gap, measuring how effective the manipulation was, the injustice standards (i.e. how much evidence was needed to understand the discrimination in the wage gap), empathic concern, and how these apply to ingroup vs. outgroup members:

Study 1: There were a total of 86 college students (roughly half men/half women and average age was 19.29 years old). The participants were provided a short reading that focused on the gender wage gap, but received instructions to either remain objective or to imagine they were the person (woman) affected. Prior to this, they were asked to complete information around their gender identification, and post-reading they were provided a questionnaire to provide feedback about their thoughts and to gauge what influence their perspective approach had.

Study 2: Study 2 involved 122 participants (all college students, about ⅔ women and ⅓ men, and average age was 19.81 years old). This study was very similar to Study 1, but now included an additional measure for women – one for ingroup and one for outgroup; a slight change in the follow up questionnaire was included to measure this difference.

Study 3: Study 3 was intended to “directly replicate and extend” the first two studies. This study included 167 participants (74 men/93 women, average age 19.80 years old, and averagely politically moderate). The main difference for this study was that rather than use 2 male research assistants as in the first two studies, this one included female research assistants; otherwise, this study was exactly the same as Study 1.

Study 4: Study 4 included 175 final participants (63 men/112 women, average age 19.11 years old, and relatively moderate on average politically). Study 4 was identical to Study 1 and Study 3, though this one was completed online.

Results

Overall, the results show us that encouraging perspective-taking for a group can result in more empathy for that group, as well as a better understanding of the issue at hand and how it affects said group (in this case, women experiencing pay disparity). An important note is that one must define oneself as not being part of the target group in order for this to be most effective; for instance, the women in this article who were part of the ingroup had overall less empathy and higher injustice standards than when they were part of the outgroup.

Study 1: The results showed that those instructed to imagine themselves in the person’s situation did this better than those asked to remain objective, and the men in this category overall held lower injustice standards than men in the objective category; this was the opposite for women. Men and women who were in the imagine category were shown to have more empathic concern than those who were not.

Study 2: The results for men were very similar to the first time around for both the imagined and objective categories regarding their manipulation, injustice standard, and empathic concern. For women, there was a slight change in that women now had similar injustice standards and empathic concern for ingroup women regardless of being in the imagine or objective category; however, the results were similar to men in that women in the objective category had lower injustice standards and higher empathic concern for outgroup women than ingroup women.

Study 3: As in the first two studies, the manipulation for perspective-taking was deemed to work the way intended (that the imagine category performs perspective taking better than those in the objective category). The injustice standards and empathic concern this time were only slightly different for men in the objective vs. imagine category, whereas the first two studies showed a lower injustice standard and higher empathic concern for the imagine category (though those in the imagine category still had the desired effect, just barely). Unlike the first two studies, women in the imagine category now held higher injustice standard than those in the objective category, but they still had greater empathic concern. The results were very close, thus the authors note this study was effective at replicating the first two studies for women, but with slightly different results for men, which the authors believe may be due to the change in research assistants.

Study 4: The results showed again that manipulation occurred as intended, and men again showed lower injustice standards and higher empathic concern in the imagine category vs. objective category. Women did not differ much on injustice standards regardless of their category, and this time the women in the imagine category actually had less empathy compared to women who had been asked to remain objective.

What This Means

  • The findings of this study vary quite differently from some previous research; however, this may be explained due to variables evaluated here that were not used in those studies, such as perspective-taking manipulation and the value of self-identity.
  • When perspective-taking is used effectively, it seems to promote a greater sense of empathy for outgroup members, despite previous research typically showing greater empathy for one’s ingroup.
  • This study shows that people can certainly be moved to have empathy and understanding for an outgroup as a whole, despite some research indicating that people have trouble connecting with a group and usually do so better with an individual (for example, connecting with someone’s story surviving an earthquake disaster as opposed to connecting and empathizing with that country overall).
  • The studies do seem to have been impacted by the presence of male research assistants, female research assistants, or no research assistants. Further research could be done to better understand the possible implications behind this (one possible question to ask is whether for the purpose of this study, seeing a man vs. a woman may have had a different effect on men vs. women in either validating or not validating the gender pay gap).
  • Furthering research to better understand how to elicit empathy for a group overall could be very important for the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and generally in understanding intergroup relations.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Perspective-taking is a powerful tool to help resolve conflict. Finding ways to incorporate this with clients and encourage it, whether on an individual or a group scale, can be a great way to resolve conflict and improve relations.

For everyone: There are times when we all must remain objective in a situation, but there are times, especially in conflict, where perspective-taking can be very helpful. Seek to understand others when the situation calls for it, and hopefully they will do the same so as to move forward peacefully.

Natalie Davis

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