“Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” (Abraham Lincoln)
“Blood just looks the same, when you open the veins.” (Karl Wallinger, Is it like today?)
If you wish to find someone just like you, who looks and thinks exactly the way you do, then perhaps the only place you can look is in a mirror.
However, here’s a thought. Imagine that as you’re looking at the mirror it begins to move progressively farther away from you. The further away it is, the more time that transpires before the light bearing your image reaches the mirror and returns. If, in this scenario, the mirror should reach, say, the distance of the sun (for the sake of argument, it’s a really big mirror), then the image that you would see is still yourself, only it’s you roughly sixteen minutes ago.
And, if you have somehow changed your mind about something, or started to feel hungry or tired, or for whatever reason altered your mood within the last sixteen minutes, then the person in that reflection and the person you are now do not exactly see eye-to-eye on everything. In that time, you’ve aged a tiny bit, lost some atoms and gained some new ones. Technically, that mirror image doesn’t represent the ‘you’ that you’ve become quite as accurately as it once did.
The point is that if we take this thought experiment to its limits, it becomes apparent that we will never find someone who is perfectly like us – not even you, eventually. Still, we manage to care a great deal about our ever fluctuating selves. We also care about others who are at least somewhat like us, and even (sometimes) others who are not so like us. The question is where we draw the line and about whom we should empathize. Of course, that line is negotiable and circumstantial, and we all have our own thresholds of inclusion.
In his book “Primates and Philosophers,” Frans de Waal described the evolution of morality, including the idea of expanding “moral circles.” Our ancestors would have found it easier to care primarily about the people closest to them, but they could also spread out from there – ourselves, then family, their village, ethnic group, humanity, etc. The circles are not permanent, but can be expanded or retracted depending upon circumstances.
This makes sense. It is not possible to love or feel empathy toward all people equally, at all times. This is not to say that we cannot comprehend treating all people equally in an abstract or legal sense. However, our attention and mental capacities are finite, and we must choose our favorite people and give preference to certain relationships, at least at any given moment. I have my favorites, you have yours, and in all likelihood they probably do not align. However, when times are good, it becomes easier to add more people to our circle, even if only temporarily, and even if they differ markedly from us. When times are tough, our circles may contract. de Waal put it this way: “the circle of morality reaches out father and farther only if the health and survival of the innermost circles are secure” (2009: 164).
Us and Them
There is evidence that we have a harder time empathizing with someone if they belong to an outgroup. In the screenshot below, David Eagleman ran such an experiment by having volunteers watch the hand of another person being pierced by a needle. According to Eagleman, when we witness another person being hurt our own reaction is usually to activate our brain’s “pain matrix,” indicating that we feel another’s pain. However, when people learn that the hand of the person being stabbed belongs to someone from another religious group than their own, empathy tends to flatten. How does this work?
Ed Yong described a similar study by Alessio Avenanti where volunteers watched hands being pierced by a needle. In this case, Avenanti recruited black and white Italians. Sadly, empathy was limited to situations when the observer and the person in the video were similar in pigmentation. However, observers showed a strong empathetic response when watching a digitally enhanced video of a violet-colored hand (and thus not belonging to any existing ethnic group) being pierced.
The upshot is that it doesn’t look like empathy is automatically confined to one’s own ethnicity by default. Rather, empathy was impeded by historically constructed racial biases. After all, violet hands do not exist. Yet we can still empathize pretty easily with a person if they come from some neutral category (even if they are violet). However, when we learn that a person comes from a more oppositional outgroup (a ‘them’), then empathy becomes harder to muster. Up to that point, in theory, a human being is a human being.
Here is one example. In 2014, a member of Iraqi parliament, a Yazidi woman named Vian Dakhil, pleaded with her colleagues to help her constituents, who were being killed and brutalized by ISIS. Her speech was widely shared on social media by people who had never even heard of the Yazidi, as they are a relatively small ethno-religious group. Since most people in the world had little prior knowledge of them, they also had no historical grievances to impede empathy, much like Avenanti’s violet-tinged hands. As a result, there was no hesitancy or any “yeah, but the Yazidi have done … XYZ too” moment. She was simply a human being who was hurting, and her pleas touched many people. I still have a hard time listening to her without getting teary-eyed.
A Mental Switch
An interesting question is how that mental switch is flipped, when a ‘them’ outside of our moral circles becomes an ‘us’ (or vice versa). A recent experiment by psychologist Sasha Kimel and colleagues addressed something along these lines (Kimel et al 2016). Kimel gave ethnic Arabs and Jews different versions of fabricated news stories that summarized studies on genetic ancestry. Some versions emphasized genetic similarities and shared ancestry between Arabs and Jews; others emphasized genetic differences. They found that when participants were given versions of the research summaries emphasizing genetic similarities between Arabs and Jews, they later felt less bias and hostility, were more optimistic about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and were more open to political compromise. Studies that emphasized genetic differences and distinct lineages generally had the opposite effects, indicating that we can be nudged to see others into a positive or negative light.
Within any species, no population is completely distinct or similar to another. Similarity and difference are a matter of degree, not kind. Kimel et al. addressed this, suggesting that our tendency to think in terms of essentialist categories is likely a key factor in cooperation and conflict:
“Yet, a question that remains is: what is the fundamental process underlying this relationship? We suspect that altering perceived intergroup genetic overlap may be particularly powerful in both exacerbating and mitigating ethnic conflict because it shifts ‘essentialist views’ of these groups or beliefs in their fixed, core nature.” (p. 697)
To some extent, we can’t help but to think categorically. We like putting things into boxes. Robert Sapolsky described part of the process that occurs within our brain – or at least monkeys’ brains – when we are figuring out how to categorize fuzzy objects:
“Our propensity to break continua into categories on a neurobiological level was shown in a beautiful study in which monkeys looked at pictures of a dog or a cat, while the electrical activity of neurons in their frontal cortexes were recorded. There would be neurons that solely responded to dog, others to cat. Then, the scientists morphed the dog and cat together, producing pictures of an 80 percent dog/20 percent cat, a 60 percent dog/40 percent cat, 40/60 and 20/80. Remarkably, neurons responded categorically. For example, a “dog” neuron would respond equally robustly to 100 percent dog and 60 percent dog, and hardly at all to 40 percent dog. In other words, the drive toward categorizing is so strong that in this circumstance, these neurons consider 60 to be closer to 100 than to 40. So we think categorically.”
Thinking categorically is a useful evolutionary strategy in that it helps us make quick assessments and predictions about an object, person, or other species. This is true whether we’re talking about cat or dog, friend or foe, or within our moral circles or not. The alternative is to be frozen by indecision, which is obviously counterproductive. However, our assessments are not always accurate. As we get new pertinent information our categorizations may shift. If it turns out that what we thought was a 60% dog (i.e., just a dog) exhibits other cat-like traits that we didn’t notice before, then our perception may shift to cat. Similarly, a 55% adversary might become a 55% ally. It might take some mental effort, but the ability to empathize with an ‘other’ is possible when consciousness is raised and hidden commonalities are brought to the forefront.
We cannot always agree with others. You may disagree with me now. After all, you are not me. But I am not always this version of me. And you are not you either, at least not exactly the same you who began reading this essay. Still, the commonalities and places where we overlap with ourselves and with others are always there, if we choose to look for them.
De Waal F. 2009. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton. Link
Hoffman KM, Trawalter S, Axt JR, Oliver MN. Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016 Apr 4:201516047. http://www.pnas.org/content/113/16/4296
Kimel SY, Huesmann R, Kunst JR, Halperin E. Living in a Genetic World How Learning About Interethnic Genetic Similarities and Differences Affects Peace and Conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2016 May 1;42(5):688-700.