The dichotomy between empathy and dehumanization is ever-present in our daily lives. We are faced with daily decisions about to what degree we should care about a certain social issue, be it the decision to give money to a beggar, to share an important article, to join a protest, to donate… the list goes on. There is no dearth of social injustices in the world that need attention and support, and in the age of information overload it becomes emotionally draining to pay attention to everything; so, human beings naturally compartmentalize the world around them into neat categories with emotional tags attached.
(Credit: Graphic artist Yanko Tsvetkov, a world map according to President Trump’s prejudices)
For example, one may associate homelessness with drug addiction, and they associate drug addiction with disgust or repulsion, so that when they encounter a beggar they are not compelled to give money because a.) They have a pre-existing association with disgust, and b.) They cognitively justify the emotion by thinking something like “well, they will just use the money for drugs so they are undeserving.” It’s these same kind of cognitive-emotional snap judgments that makes black people much more likely to be stopped, shot, and killed by police officers than white or Hispanic people. And it’s the same reason why most of the western world is rejecting Muslim refugees. People make snap decisions about who deserves their empathy, and whom they can discriminate and dehumanize. In psychology, these delineations often fall into “in-group” categorization or “out-group” categorization.
When discussing prejudice and discrimination, we like to talk about the socio-economic effects, the emotional toll, the institutional factors; how does prejudice affect people in daily life? As a middle-eastern American living in post 9/11 America, prejudice has been a felt experience for me, as well as something I have studied in various academic settings. Now, I get to investigate the science behind prejudice. There are real neural and physiological differences in the brain of someone who is prejudiced vs. someone who is not, and that is fascinating to me.
A lot of what we are researching in the lab is how does brain activity reflect this difference between ‘in’ and ‘out’ group interactions? How does your brain respond to someone it considers a member of “us” versus a member of “them?” And furthermore, how does this affect whether or not you feel empathy towards another person?