The Brain’s Empathy GapThe more widespread a stereotype is, the more wrong it must be.
Can mapping neural pathways help us make friends with our enemies?
By JENEEN INTERLANDI MARCH 19, 2015
Nyiregyhaza (pronounced NEAR-re-cha-za) is a medium-size city tucked into the northeastern corner of Hungary, about 60 miles from the Ukrainian border. It has a world-class zoo, several museums and universities and a new Lego Factory. It also has two Roma settlements, or “Gypsy ghettos.” The larger of these settlements is Gusev, a crumbling 19th-century military barracks separated from the city proper by a railway station and a partly defunct industrial zone. Gusev is home to more than 1,000 Roma. Its chief amenities include a small grocery store and a playground equipped with a lone seesaw and a swingless swing set. There’s also a freshly painted elementary school, where approximately 60 students are currently enrolled. Almost all those students are Roma and almost all of them live in Gusev.
Officially, most of the schools in Nyiregyhaza are integrated. Roma students have access to the same facilities as non-Roma students, and the ethnic balance of any given facility largely reflects the ethnic balance of the neighborhoods it serves. In practice, things are muddier. …
In 2007, the municipality closed the Gusev school and began a busing program, as part of a larger effort to integrate the Roma into Hungarian society. But the program was short-lived, in part because of resistance from the community. Non-Roma children bullied, teased and ostracized Roma students, and non-Roma parents began pulling their children out of schools that took in too many Roma. In 2011, the busing program was discontinued and the settlement school was reopened under the direction of the Greek Catholic Church. That same year, C.F.C.F. filed a lawsuit charging the church and the municipality with racial segregation. “The church has this totally modern school, with a brand-new swimming pool, right in the center of the city,” Kegye said. “Why can’t the kids from Gusev go to that school?”
Nyiregyhaza is by no means the only city to stand accused of such practices. C.F.C.F. has filed similar lawsuits throughout Hungary, and there are cases pending in Romania, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
But the Gusev case has attracted attention, in part because of the courtroom spectacle it has created. In 2013, Hungary’s minister of human resources, Zoltan Balog, testified on behalf of the Gusev school, claiming it offered Roma students a chance at social “catch-up” — the opportunity to develop the basic social and academic skills needed to join mainstream society. The school’s principal also took the stand, testifying that the Roma were infested with lice and that some had never used a fork. When asked by the presiding judge if room could be made for Roma children in the church’s other, nicer school, a priest replied that perhaps they could clear some space in the attic. When pressed, he said that mixing Roma children with non-Roma children would be “harmful” to the former. In February 2014, the court sided with C.F.C.F., ordering the Gusev school to stop accepting new students and ruling that it amounted to segregation. When I visited this fall, the Gusev school was appealing the judge’s decision, claiming it was better for the Roma to keep the school open. In the meantime, it had welcomed yet another incoming class.Of course, outside of perhaps Spain, the “art of collective persuasion” has spectacularly failed to get Gypsies to do these SWPL things, or even to stop picking pockets and running home repair scams on the elderly. The Roma are the world’s most remarkable example of in-group morality producing a lack of empathy for the host populations, no matter how many different attempts these states have attempted.
Governments and nongovernmental organizations have spent decades perfecting the art of collective persuasion — getting people to do things that are good for them and for society. They have persuaded us to eat more vegetables and to wear our seatbelts, to walk for cures and to give to charity.
But the Roma aren’t the point, the point is White People and What’s Wrong with Them?
What has not come so easily is persuading us to identify with — or even tolerate — people we perceive as outsiders. This is especially true when those outsiders form an entire community. A Facebook page devoted to individual portraits and the stories behind them might trigger an outpouring of donations for a “failing” public school in a blighted neighborhood. And the killing of a single unarmed black teenager might prompt thousands to protest in the streets. But social policies that address the problems behind individual fates — programs to combat poverty or racial bias in policing — remain as polarizing as ever.
While social and economic factors account for some of what divides us into warring camps, psychologists since Freud have suspected that something more fundamental is at work. In 1963, the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram famously showed that average people were capable of inflicting grievous harm on one another — in this case, administering what they believed were powerful electric shocks — if they thought they were following the orders of a superior. A few years later, in an equally famous experiment, the Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo had subjects play prisoners and wardens and showed that context can be far more powerful than our own values and personality traits in determining how we treat other people. Together, the studies are perhaps the most emblematic of a generation of psychology research into the social cues that determine how one group treats another. What role does group identity play? Does authority make us passive or just reinforce our belief that we are right? How much of our empathy is innate and how much is instilled in us by our environment?Duh, boys like to fight because they really like to win. It’s almost as if Rudyard Kipling understood boys better than some music therapists and muralists. If the Twig Boy counselors don’t provide the lads with alternative structures for their competitive energies, such as randomly selected hurling teams, they’ll naturally fall back to brawling along extended family lines. What could be more natural than that?
In the past two decades, with the advent of f.M.R.I. technology, neuroscientists also began to tackle such questions. Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent the past seven years studying intractable conflicts around the world. He has looked at Israelis and Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank, Mexican immigrants and Americans along the Arizona border and Democrats and Republicans across the United States. By supplementing psychological experiments with brain scans, he is trying to map when and how our ability to empathize with one another break down, in hopes of finding a way to build it back up.
This past fall, he traveled to Budapest. The struggle to integrate the Roma reminded Bruneau of the fierce opposition that greeted Brown v. Board of Education: In each case, the resistance to desegregation was forceful enough to trump national law. “I keep coming back to the same basic question,” he told me one evening at a restaurant along the Danube. “If we knew then what we know now, could we have done any better?”
So far, Bruneau says, the link between f.M.R.I. data and behavior has been tenuous. …
In Hungary, Bruneau was trying to find a way to link what he observed in the field with what we know about how empathy works in our brains. “We must have learned something in the past 60 years,” he said. “I think we have an opportunity to put that knowledge to use now, to help the efforts underway here.”
At 42, Bruneau has a young face and a laid-back manner that betrays his self-described California hippie upbringing and that most likely served him well in his early career as a high-school biology teacher. His first formal experience in conflict resolution came when he was 24 and volunteering at a summer camp for Catholic and Protestant boys in Belfast. In an effort to build friendships between the two groups, the camp organizer, an American nonprofit, invited 250 children between the ages of 6 and 14 to bunk together for three weeks, all in the same large room. There were no planned activities or events. One volunteer was an artist who wanted to help the children design murals; another was a jazz musician who offered music therapy. But mainly the volunteer counselors, all in their early 20s, were left to improvise. “Everyone’s heart was in the right place,” Bruneau told me when I visited his office at M.I.T. this fall. “But nobody had any clue what they were doing.”
At first he thought things were going pretty well. Some Protestant boys built what seemed like genuine friendships with some Catholic boys. But on the last day of the program — after three weeks of nature walks, impromptu dialogues and trust-building exercises — a fight broke out between two participants that quickly devolved into a full-scale, 250-child brawl: Catholics against Protestants. Bruneau was startled. He knew the children to be both kind and empathetic toward one another. But those instincts were overridden by something much more powerful.
… He spent the next few years traveling. He had already been to South Africa for the fall of apartheid.Maybe he should try staying in one place long enough to actually learn something?
… He returned to the States, settling in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he completed a Ph.D. in molecular biology. But he kept thinking about the conflicts he had witnessed, and about the failed peace-building initiatives. What struck him most were the similarities: the ideological motivations, the deep-rooted psychological biases and the careful way that people apportioned their empathy. The questions he most wanted to answer were not about the individual molecules he was studying in the lab but about how people interacted with others. So, with his Ph.D. complete, he abandoned molecular biology and talked his way into a cognitive neuroscience lab at M.I.T. …That’s what borders are for. We have private property and we have separate countries. These allow us to concentrate our efforts at improvement where they might do the most good, where we best understand the situation, rather than, say, traveling to Ireland to cluelessly social engineer a sectarian riot.
He started looking into conflict-intervention programs and discovered that there were hundreds more like the one he volunteered for in Ireland, and that hardly any of them had been scientifically validated. No one was really checking to see if the programs accomplished their stated goals, or even if their stated goals were the best ones for achieving the desired outcomes. “They have all these very straightforward metrics like building trust, and building empathy, that sound totally reasonable,” Bruneau says. “But it turns out that a lot of those common-sense approaches can be way off-base.”
Increasing empathy seemed to be a key goal of every conflict-resolution program he looked at; he thought this reflected a misconception about the type of people who engage in political violence. “If Hollywood is to be believed, they’re all sociopaths,” he says. “But that’s not the reality. Suicide bombers tend to be characterized by, if anything, very high levels of empathy. Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian woman suicide bomber, was a volunteer paramedic during the second Intifada.”
Bruneau developed a theory to explain this paradox: When considering an enemy, the mind generates an “empathy gap.” It mutes the empathy signal, and that muting prevents us from putting ourselves in the perceived enemy’s shoes. He couldn’t yet guess at the mechanism behind the phenomenon, but he hypothesized that it had nothing to do with how empathetic a person was by nature. Even the most deeply empathetic people could mute their empathy signals under the right circumstances. And it was difficult to determine what role empathy played in group conflicts. Increasing empathy might be great at improving pro-social behavior among individuals, but if a program succeeded in boosting an individual’s empathy for his or her own group, he reasoned, it might actually increase hostility toward the enemy.
In Budapest, whenever he found himself chatting with Roma activists who were not themselves Roma, he would ask them why they wanted to help. He had a hunch that if he put any of these “non-Roma Roma” in the scanner, and then compared their results with those of other Hungarians, they, too, would end up as blue dots in a sea of red. He reasoned that something somewhere in their lives had overridden their implicit biases and moved them to behave with greater empathy toward the minority group. He wanted to know what that something was. “If we could figure out how it happens,” he said, “maybe we could harness it somehow.” …Reporters for the New York Times aren’t complete fools, so you’ll often find well into an article a change where the reporter starts listing some unwelcome facts that contradict the article’s main thesis.
In Budapest, Bruneau planned to measure anti-Roma biases in a group of schoolteachers, and then to see how well those biases correlated to their treatment of Roma students and their support for Roma integration. The goal was to help NGOs and school administrators design more successful integration programs — programs that didn’t trigger political backlash or waves of white flight. “The idea is to intervene at the psychological level before we intervene at the societal level,” he said. “And then to see if doing that improves the success rate of various integration programs.”
Anna Kende, a social psychologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, is not as optimistic as Bruneau about the potential of psychological interventions to improve the Roma situation. “I appreciate his approach,” she told me. “But the problem is very complex.” Part of it has to do with the Roma themselves, she says. For three generations now, their communities have been blighted by unemployment and the poverty that comes with it.And what were Gypsy communities like more than three generations ago? Were they ignored by novelists and opera composers?
And their psyches have been frayed by that experience. Kende’s research suggests that children living in settlements understand social mobility and the mechanisms behind it: to have a nice life, you have to study hard so you can get a good job and buy a house. But they also understand that those paths are closed to them. When she asked students how they would afford a nice house and a family, many said they would have accidents and collect insurance money, or win at poker.Great line, perfectly exemplifying the postmodern worldview.
The Roma who do escape the settlements often shed their ethnic identities — either deliberately or by default. “So for example, the dominant group may accept a Roma who comes from the settlement and somehow makes it into college,” Kende says. “But it’s not, ‘Oh, now this changes my perception of Roma.’ It’s, ‘Oh, well that person is not really Roma.’ And then what you have left is, the word ‘Roma’ becomes shorthand for ‘dirty, lazy, thief.’?” Those norms are so pervasive, she said, that the Roma themselves have adopted them.
This was plain to see in the settlements I visited, where residents talked openly about expelling the lazy and the criminal alike. “We cannot protect people just because they are Roma,” one settlement dweller told me. “We have to throw out the bad elements.”In other words, all that happened was the governments and NGOs got better at punishing white people forced to live around Roma. Not surprisingly, the Roma seemed to draw the lesson that they were A-OK and it was their white neighbors’ faults.
… Kende was not the only one feeling pessimistic. The Decade of Roma Inclusion — a multicountry initiative begun in 2005, as former Soviet-bloc countries like Hungary prepared for admission to the European Union — was drawing to a close, and the numbers were as dismal as they were at the start. According to the United Nations Development Program, about 90 percent of Europe’s 11 million or so Roma were still living below the poverty line; about 45 percent of Roma live in households that lack basic amenities like indoor toilets and electricity. In Hungary, Roma unemployment is estimated at 70 percent, or 10 times the national average. Worst of all, though, were the education statistics. Access to education was the initiative’s centerpiece, and desegregation programs received the most funding. Only one out of two Roma children attends preschool or kindergarten.
True, the decade was not a complete loss. Anti-discrimination laws were enacted, several high-profile court cases were won — including two in the European Court of Human Rights — and there were enough small-scale successes to suggest that desegregation was possible, even if systemwide gains remained elusive. But those gains had yet to be translated into meaningful change.
Bruneau explained that the pilot study was not an end in itself, and that the next step would be to develop actual psychological interventions, and then to test them to see which were most effective.I suspect there will be big money to be made in developing witch-sniffing gear to suss out racists using brain scans so they can be properly punished.
Bruneau said he thought the answer to that question might lie with non-Roma activists like her. And then he asked a question: What made her, an educated white woman, take up the Roma cause? This gave Magyar pause. After a brief silence, she explained that she grew up in a city close to the Austrian border and that she always felt like an outsider when her family would cross over to go shopping. Daroczi couldn’t help interjecting; after the fall of communism, he said, Hungarians crossed the border in droves, mostly to purchase basic goods. “It was written in Hungarian on the walls of the shops, ‘Hungarians: don’t steal!’?” he said.In other words, true liberals tend to have leapfrogging loyalties because they resent people more like themselves. For example, these two white Hungarians resented that white Austrians recognized the poor moral character that Communism induced in people. So, while most white Hungarians after 1989 felt that as an impetus to live up to Western European standards of honesty, these two resented the offense to their amour propre and applied it to white people in general, adopting Gypsies as their psychological proxies.
“It felt shameful,” Magyar added, nodding. “I think that really affected me.”
Bruneau lit up at the anecdote; it was very similar to the stories he’d collected from other non-Roma activists.
… “Yes, but even that is tricky,” Magyar said. The way a person related her own experiences to the experiences of others was complicated, she said. “Sometimes those same experiences trigger the exact opposite reaction.”In other words, in 1989 most Hungarians recognized that the Austrians had a point, and resolved to show them they were wrong by … behaving better.
But white liberal ethnic activists instead adopt the Gypsies as representatives of their wounded pride, for which they are ideal since they are so amazingly resistant over the long run to behaving better.
… Bruneau hopes that neural focus groups might help determine which interventions are most likely to succeed. “We would get people in the lab to view a number of different candidate anti-Roma bias campaigns,” he said. “And then see which ones generated the greatest response in predefined brain regions.” Ideally, social scientists working in Hungary would determine which programs to measure, and Bruneau’s research would help evaluate and refine those programs. In psychology experiments he conducted, short narratives about individuals from rival groups proved particularly effective at getting opponents to empathize with one another. He imagined intervention programs that used narratives like these in a variety of ways.C’mon, Dr. Bruneau, think big: the future lies not just in passively detecting racist brainwaves, but in actively remolding the brain to goodthink instead of crimethink. Crimethinkers could have the parts of their brain prone to bad thoughts lobotomized with radiation beams. I see not just the Nobel Prize in Medicine in your future, but also the Nobel Peace Prize.
But before any such collaboration could begin, people — not just Roma activists but parents and teachers and school administrators — would have to be persuaded that psychological biases were, in fact, the root of the problem: that they existed in the first place, that they were coloring individual perception and affecting attitudes and behaviors and that science could help change them. Bruneau appreciates how quixotic this sounds. “I get that these are complicated problems,” he told me. “I get that there isn’t going to be any one magic solution. But if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.”