Article: The Brain’s Empathy Gap

[A long article that is worth the full read. Boston was the site of major strife over school integration and busing so this very recent episode in Hungary feels particularly relevant here, though the United States as a whole does not have particularly integrated schools and continues litigious battles over integration. The possibility of building empathy through better brain research is really exciting.]

The Brain’s Empathy Gap

March 19, 2015 The New York Times Magazine

By Jeneen Interlandi

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. While many families in Gusev have been assigned to perfectly reputable schools, there is no busing program, and most schools are not within walking distance. For families living on just 60,000 forints ($205) a month, the schools are also too expensive to reach by public transit. “Everything is fine on paper,” Adel Kegye, an attorney with the Chance for Children Foundation (C.F.C.F.), told me when I visited Hungary this past fall. “But in reality, they make it very hard for the Roma to go anywhere but the settlement school.”

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.

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. 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?

{Emile Bruneau at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at M.I.T.CreditMatthew Monteith for The New York Times} 

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?”

In recent years, neuroscientists have begun to map empathy’s pathways in the brain. We know that the ability to identify other people’s thoughts and feelings as separate from our own (what psychologists refer to as having a “theory of mind”) is associated with a handful of interconnected brain regions known collectively as the “theory-of-mind network.” And we’ve begun to pin specific tasks — like identifying other people’s mental states, or making moral judgments about their actions — to specific parts of this network.

But the picture remains incomplete. We still need to map a host of other empathy-related tasks — like judging the reasonableness of people’s arguments and sympathizing with their mental and emotional states — to specific brain regions. And then we need to figure out how these neural flashes translate into actual behavior: Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare? Why is empathizing across groups so much more difficult? And what, if anything, can be done to change that calculus?

So far, Bruneau says, the link between f.M.R.I. data and behavior has been tenuous. Many f.M.R.I. studies on empathy involve scanning subjects’ brains while they look at images of hands slammed in doors or of faces poked with needles. Scientists have shown that the same brain regions light up when you watch such things happen to someone else as when you experience them or imagine them happening to you. “To me, that’s not empathy,” Bruneau says. “It’s what you do with that information that determines whether it’s empathy or not.” A psychopath might demonstrate the same neural flashes in response to the same painful images but experience glee instead of distress.

Similarly, stronger neural activity might correlate with how relevant a group or individual is to us, not what we feel for them. In a 2012 study, Bruneau showed that Arabs and Israelis displayed equal amounts of neural activity in their theory-of-mind regions when they read articles about their own group’s suffering as when they read about the other group’s suffering. But when they read about the suffering of South Americans — a group with whom they were not in direct conflict — their theory-of-mind regions quieted down. As far as the brain is concerned, he says, the opposite of love might not be hate but indifference.

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 left Ireland wondering if peace-building initiatives were doing more harm than good, and if there was any way to make them better.

He spent the next few years traveling. He had already been to South Africa for the fall of apartheid. Now he made his way to Sri Lanka, landing at the Colombo airport just hours before it was attacked by the Tamil Tigers, then spent the next several weeks trailing two journalist friends through the countryside as they interviewed people on both sides of the conflict. Here, as in Ireland, otherwise-reasonable people could not bring themselves to consider the opposing side’s perspective, and as a result could not muster compassion for their suffering.

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. “I wanted the research I was doing to match the stuff I was thinking about,” he says. “And I just felt more and more that the most relevant level of analysis for generating social change was the psychological level.”

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.

To test these ideas in the lab, he divided a group of volunteers into two teams, each with its own colors and logo, and then pitted them against each other in an online game. Each participant read short anecdotes about the fortunes or misfortunes of other study participants, and rated how good or bad the anecdotes made them feel. With each anecdote, the team logo and colors of the person whose story it was appeared on the computer screen. Participants tended to feel much less empathy — less joy at the successes and less sorrow at the misfortunes — for members of the other team than for members of their own team or of a control group that hadn’t been assigned to any team. And as Bruneau hypothesized, the width of this empathy gap did not correlate with a person’s empathy rating on personality assessments; it was not wider in less empathetic people or narrower in more empathetic people.

What it did correlate with was the strength of a person’s group identity. “The more an individual’s team affiliation resonated for them, the less empathy they were likely to express for members of the rival team,” he says. “Even in this contrived setting, something as inconsequential as a computer game was enough to generate a measurable gap.”

In some ways the finding was not a surprise. Evidence of the empathy gap abounds: in political discourse, across daily headlines, even in the simple act of watching a movie. “People will cry for the suffering of one main character,” Bruneau pointed out. “But then cheer for the slaughter of dozens of others.” The observation reminded me of watching “Captain Phillips” in a packed theater at Lincoln Center, of how much people applauded when the Somali pirates — whose lives back home had been portrayed as dire — were killed. They were the bad guys. Never mind that they had barely reached manhood or that their families were desperate and starving. Never mind that some were reluctant to turn to piracy in the first place.

Back in 2010, while studying Israelis and Arabs living in the Boston area, Bruneau happened upon some unexpected data. Participants in the study read short letters about the Middle East published in local newspapers and rated how reasonable they thought each opinion was, while Bruneau scanned their brains. He’d noticed that a common sticking point in regional dialogues was that each side found the other ignorant or irrational or both. Bruneau wanted to see if those perceptions could be traced to a specific part of the theory-of-mind network.

For the most part, the results were as expected. Israeli subjects were more likely to harbor anti-Arab biases and to rate Arab perspectives as unreasonable, and vice versa. And in both groups, a small region of the brain, the medial precuneus, which may be associated with the theory-of-mind network, responded more strongly when the subject was reading letters written by members of the other group. But for three subjects, the psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other. The psychological tests indicated that they held the same types of anti-Arab biases as the other Israeli subjects, but their brain scans, and their reasonableness ratings, indicated that they were able to identify with the Arab perspective nonetheless. All three of these outliers, it turned out, were Israeli peace activists. In a scatter plot of the study’s results, in which blue dots represented the Israeli subjects and red dots represented the Palestinian ones, the peace activists stood out: three specks of blue in a quadrant of red.

The sample size was too small to make any broad inferences, but it set Bruneau on a quest of sorts. 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.”

Bruneau is the first to admit that this is no simple task. For all the progress that has been made in neuroscience, he says, the human brain is still an enigma. He likens the brain to a human riding an elephant: The human rider is the part we can consciously access and control, and the elephant is the subliminal rest. “We know next to nothing about how the elephant works, or how to actually steer it,” he says. “But it exerts enormous influence on our behavior.”

Psychologists have developed a battery of tests to help them glimpse this elephant. The implicit association test, or I.A.T. (sometimes referred to as the “racist test” in popular culture), evaluates subconscious biases by measuring how long it takes a person to match certain words to certain images on a computer screen. Other tests have been designed to measure dehumanization, by gauging the extent to which we attribute higher-order, human-specific emotions to groups other than our own, or how evolved we deem a given racial group to be. They’re crude tests, to be sure, especially for a scientist trained in the precision of molecular biology. But Bruneau consoles himself with the trade-off. “The answers you get with psychology may be less final, and less satisfying in a way,” he says. “But the questions you get to ask are so much bigger.”

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 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.

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.”

Marianna Pongo, who is Roma and grew up in Gusev, told me that at least some of the blame for the failure of Nyiregyhaza’s busing program lay with the Roma themselves. “They have behavioral problems,” she said one afternoon, as we sat in her kitchen over coffee and homemade cinnamon cookies. “The bus driver tried disciplining the kids at one point, because they were running around on the bus and he couldn’t drive. And when the kids got off the bus, they told their parents that the driver hit them. So the parents basically attacked the driver.” At another school, there were so many fights between kids from the two Roma settlements that a security guard had to be hired to maintain order. “I’m all for integration,” she said. “But I think it needs to be pointed out that some of the Roma act in ways that don’t help.”

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.

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