When less empathy is desirable: The complexity of empathy and intergroup relationships in Preventing Violent Extremism

Why does empathy matter to P/CVE Practitioners?

As practitioners of preventing violent extremism (PVE), our aim is to reduce the drivers and enablers of extremism, whatever they may be, and in doing so, reduce the willingness to engage in or support violent acts against ‘the other’. As empathy is traditionally associated with lower propensities towards violence, this has led to the fostering of empathy as a program goal in some PVE activities. Messaging and alternative narratives are often included in PVE programming in pursuit of this aim.
We define empathy as the ability to recognise the emotions of others, and to emotionally respond to them.[1] If a desired program outcome is to elicit an emotional response and change minds, you often want to appeal to the individual’s empathy. The assumption in this approach is that if program participants become more empathetic, they will be less vulnerable to extremist narratives, and less willing to engage in violent acts.

What can happen when we get it wrong?

However, what this approach fails to take into consideration is the complexity of intergroup relationships, and that we behave differently towards those we place in our ‘in-group’ compared to those we place in our ‘out-group’. Many extremists have actually been found to have very high levels of empathy, but only for their own group.[2] In light of this, fostering empathy as a programme goal may not actually soothe tensions or relieve grievances, but instead have the opposite effect – this is because empathy building exercises can make you support your own group even more, to the detriment of the other group.
The reason for this is because as humans we don’t distribute our empathy evenly, and it is very easy for us to turn our empathy on or off for different groups. Overall, we tend to have more empathy for our in-group (those who we feel are like us) over the out-group (those who we feel are not like us). When considering conflict and violent extremism, the bigger the empathy gap between these two, the more concerned we should be. Doing basic measurements of in-group and out-group empathy can be a practical way to gauge this gap at the onset of programming to be aware of where participants fall.
In conflict, you want to shrink the gap by increasing out-group empathy, reducing in-group empathy, and re-defining who belongs in both in-group and out-group. What you don’t want to do, and what many PVE programs unintentionally do, is enhance in-group empathy only, thus leading to more hostility and conflict.

How do we do it right?

Using narratives that humanise out-group members can be a powerful way to reduce conflict,[3] and exposure to a narrative (in a book, film, or radio) can be one of the best ways to enhance out-group empathy in an individual. It’s also low risk.[4] While social interactions between groups in conflict can create anxiety, and risks re-affirming existing biases, a narrative or story can provide a safe arena for participant to experience emotions without need for self-protection. It also allows the participant to experience humanising perceptions and feelings towards out-group members, without the influence from social norms. After all, studies have shown that social norms and expectations dictate behavior in conflict much more strongly than personal moral parameters.[5]
Exposure to humanising stories about out-group members can have such a strong impact, that even if the out-group characters are unrelated to the conflict (for example, having vulnerable youth on the Kenyan coast read a story about a boy with disabilities) it can still lead to enhanced empathy for out-group members related to conflict (Kenyan police). This effect can be especially helpful if the conflict is highly sensitive.
One of the reasons that narratives can have this powerful effect is related to the process your brain goes through when exposed to stories. Because we accept stories as make-believe, we do not need to consider whether we believe the content of the story or not[6] and we are not forced to give up existing beliefs to accept information from a story. This is why narratives can be an efficient way to introduce compelling ideas aimed at fostering empathy, which would likely have been rejected had they been delivered in a lecture or academic format.

What do we still not know?

As work on PVE continues to take shape, more and more practitioners are committing themselves do the ‘do no harm’ approach. Using narratives to foster out-group empathy can be fully compatible with this commitment, as this approach is less explicit and less invasive than many existing programme approaches. It can also be tailored to suit the capabilities of the participants and their environment, for example delivering the narratives as a radio program or theater for those who cannot read. Though the long-term benefits of narratives in P/CVE approaches in real conflict have yet to be tested, the literature tells us that the versatility, the low-risk, and low-cost nature of narratives should lend themselves as compelling addition to any PVE program.

Author Bio
Niccola Milnes is a PVE Research Specialist and Wasafiri Consultant.

[1] Bal PM, Veltkamp M (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1).

[2] Bruneau, E., Cikara, M., & Saxe, R. (2015). Minding the Gap: Narrative Descriptions about Mental States Attenuate Parochial EmpathyPLoS ONE, 10 (10),

[3] Bruneau, Emile G., and Rebecca Saxe. The Power of Being Heard: The Benefits of ‘perspective-Giving’ in the Context of Intergroup Conflict. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 48(4). Pp. 855–866.
Paluck, Elizabeth Levy (2010). Is it better not to talk? Group polarization, extended contact, and perspective taking in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36(9), pp. 1170 – 1185.
Elizabeth Levy Paluck, 2007. Reducing intergroup prejudice and conflict with the media: A field experiment in RwandaHiCN Working Papers 34, Households in Conflict Network.

[4] Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2015). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(2), 105-121

[5] Bruneau, Emile (2015b) Putting Neuroscience to work for peace: The Social Psychology of Intractable Conflicts. 27. pp 143-155

[6] Bal PM, Veltkamp M (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1).