Selective empathy is bringing us down

by Andreas Kluth

Natural selection played a trick on Homo sapiens. It gave us the vital skill of empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves into other people’s minds and feelings. But it did so with a hitch: In situations of anxiety, strife or trauma, our empathy becomes selective. At worst, that makes us identify entirely with our own in-group and simultaneously demonize or dehumanize people in the out-group. The results can be dire, ranging from extreme political polarization all the way to war crimes.

Distinguishing between inclusive and exclusive — or indivisible vs. zero-sum — empathy helps to diagnose all sorts of bitter conflicts. Some are military, such as those raging between Israelis and Palestinians or Ukrainians and Russians. Others are “merely” political, psychological or cultural, such as the enmity between fans of former President Donald Trump and their opponents, whether those are old-school Republicans or Democrats.

Public figures such as politicians and, ahem, pundits are among the first to notice a general breakdown in empathy, in the form of increasing vitriol. Even if they genuinely try to understand, acknowledge and feel the pain on both sides of a chasm, they will invariably be heard by some audiences as showing too much empathy for one group and too little for another.

Since Oct. 7, for example, President Joe Biden has been empathetic to Israelis and Palestinians alike. He immediately understood that the bloodcurdling sadism perpetrated by Hamas brought back the collective trauma of the Holocaust for Jews. He also grasped that Israel’s all-out bombing of the Gaza Strip, which he has called “indiscriminate,” triggered a different collective trauma for Palestinians, the Nakba (“catastrophe”) of their mass expulsion by the Israelis in 1948.

A lot of Biden’s listeners, though, have chosen to hear only one of these two vectors of empathy. Many people across the world believe he cares more about Israeli than about Palestinian lives and suffering. Even in the U.S., rioters have called him “Genocide Joe.”

Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, has found himself in the opposite situation. In speech after speech after Oct. 7 he condemned the Hamas terror, but also once added that the attacks “did not happen in a vacuum.” By that he meant that the Palestinians have endured generations of “suffocating occupation” that breeds extremism, even though that “cannot justify the appalling attacks.” That expression of inclusive empathy was enough for Israel’s representative to the UN to demand Guterres’ resignation and to accuse him of “blood libel,” a vile antisemitic trope dating to the Middle Ages.

For both empathy and its malfunctions we have evolution to thank and blame. To pass on their genes more widely, our ancestors learned to cooperate, and therefore, with the aid of mirror neurons and other cognitive adaptations, to “feel into” other human minds. That’s the concept the British psychologist Edward Titchener captured in 1909 with the neologism “empathy,” taken from the German Einfühlung and translated into Greek syllables to evoke the older (but different) word “sympathy.”

Along with empathy, though, Homo sapiens evolved a bias toward “parochial altruism,” which combines favoritism toward the in-group with hostility toward an out-group. Our ancestors were more likely to survive and procreate if they bonded with their tribe and ruthlessly subdued common enemies. We today still default to pitting Us against Them, where They may be people who invade, immigrate, look different or simply disagree.

When we stop empathizing with certain groups, we typically exaggerate their Otherness. At worst, that takes the form of demonization or dehumanization. Russian President Vladimir Putin, trying to justify his slaughter of Ukrainian civilians, has declared them to be Nazis and Satanists. The Hamas terrorists who massacred Israeli families convinced themselves that they were killing “infidels.” The Israeli defense minister, in ordering the bombing of Gaza, described its population as “human animals.” Trump has called his political opponents “vermin.”

Such metaphors seem ludicrous to the uninitiated, but they also deter members of the in-group from empathizing. Once outsiders are made to seem evil or subhuman, insiders open to reconciliation look like traitors. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were both murdered by extremists on their own side, for the crime of seeking peace with the other side.

This pathology is at work even without physical violence or international conflict. Polarization in domestic politics in the U.S., as in Germany, Poland and other places, is increasingly “affective” — that is, based not on policy disagreements but on mutual dislike and even hate.

There is hope, however. Human nature may have programmed us to empathize within our tribe and hate others. But it also allows us to analyze and understand this predicament and to break out of the cycle.

With individual discipline and wise leadership, we can examine the narratives we tell ourselves and discard those that are harmful. Instead of Israelis and Palestinians, say, staying locked in competitive victimhood, they could try harder to acknowledge the trauma on the other side as well. Surveys have shown that simple listening and validation — a form of empathy — can be enough to build bridges.

The past, via the mechanism of natural selection, has made humans as they are. But the past doesn’t have to be destiny, at least not all the time and everywhere. To live in peace at home and in the world, we have to extend our empathy to all people. Experience tells us that this will be hard, and that we will often fail. All the more reason to keep trying.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. diplomacy and national security.