If everyone had friends from minority groups, would there be less bigotry overall?

In one of my Instagram stories, I wrote about the need for more Hindus to have at least one good Muslim friend. Likewise, upper castes should have one good lower-caste friend. This I proposed would make the Bhakts more empathetic (Bhakts I believe are predominantly upper caste Hindu men).

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To this suggestion, someone pointed out that this may not help at all.

“Having a friend really makes little to no difference to Bhakts / card carrying RSS member for that matter. The hypocrisy is too deep”, P commented and shared the below cartoon.

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A cartoon by @ellisjrosen. #NewYorkerCartoons

A post shared by The New Yorker Cartoons (@newyorkercartoons) on

“All these people have friends. But they consider them friends only until outside their doorstep”, P added. “They never give up on rituals and cultural processes. They stay with the family circles and with those, they have constructed beliefs that make a villain out of minorities.”

Since this ‘friendship ain’t gonna do nothing’ theory was primarily coming from the P’s personal experiences, I wanted to find out if there were studies available, where sociologists / social scientists had tried to test this hypothesis.

Life’s real answers are mostly neither here, nor there – they are somewhere in between! 🙂

Jamil Zaki is the director of The Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. Following are some insights he shares in his book:

  • In all-white housing projects in US, 75% of residents said they’d dislike living alongside blacks; but in mixed projects, only 25% disliked having black neighbors.
  • In all-white platoons in US, 62% of soldiers opposed integrating the armed forces; but among whites who had been in a mixed platoon, only 7% opposed such integration.

Do you now think there is a possibility of an evidence based support for what I was instinctively thinking? In fact, there’s a name for it – the ‘Contact Hypothesis’.

Bigotry often boils down to a lack of acquaintance.

Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice

The antidote to bigotry that the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport proposed in his 1954 book was simple – Bring people together – which in psychology, came to be known as the ‘Contact Hypothesis‘.

But Contact doesn’t work all the time. In fact, in some cases, it can actually make things worse.

The Boston commuter train experiment

When each morning at the same time, some Latino passengers were ‘planted’ on a Boston commuter train – and this was done for ten days – it was observed that the white commuters who saw Latinos grew less tolerant of immigration than they had been before.

“Goodwill contact without concrete goals accomplishes nothing”, Allport proposed, followed by recommendations to make such Contact initiatives truly effective (things like giving the groups mutual goals, making the interactions personal etc.)

Allport proposed that for most favorable results of such Contact initiatives, groups should be given equal status (even if one group has more power in real life). But now we know it takes more than that (in part thanks to the Sender-Responder experiment).

The Sender-Responder experiment

Emile Bruneau – Director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at University of Pennsylvania – started with the premise that if one group is silenced for most part in real life, perhaps they should be given greater status when the groups come together.

To test this idea, he paired Mexican immigrants and white U.S. citizens who had never met. In each pair,

  • one person was assigned the role of “sender” – who would write a short essay about the hardships facing their group;
  • the second person – the “responder” – would read the essay and then summarize it in their own words and pass it back.

When white Americans acted as responders (reading what Mexicans wrote and then summed it up themselves), they said they felt better about Mexican immigrants. The Mexican immigrants who acted as senders also felt the same.

But when Mexican immigrants acted as responders (where they had to read about hardships of white Americans), they felt worse about the white Americans.

Brunue tried similar experiments in different contexts and settings and the results were the same. The minority group is already well aware of the majority narrative / perspective. In a sit-down where say both men and women are supposed to share their perspectives, men get to gain real insights; women – not so much.

Women are so keenly aware of the male experience because our entire existence had to be kind of through that lens. Whereas men have never had to understand the female experience in order to exist in the world.

Sarah Silverman (from The War for Kindness)

Contact Hypothesis works, but it works best when it reverses the existing power structure, rather than ignoring it in the name of ‘equality’.

Before I end, let me share another story / experiment from the book – this one is on psychopaths. Psychopaths, by definition, have impaired empathy – they simply don’t care about other people’s emotion. So the question is – IS IT POSSIBLE TO ALTER THE EMPATHY LEVEL OF PSYCHOPATHS TOO?

The short answer is yes! I know I know…

Christian Keysers and his colleagues traveled to prisons around the Netherlands and scanned the brains of both psychopathic and non-psychopathic criminals as they were shown images of people in pain.

As expected, psychopaths didn’t show a mirroring response (activation of mirror neurons takes place in our brain when we feel someone else’s feelings / pains / movement). The non-psychopathic criminals showed such mirroring response.

This may suggest that psychopaths’ lack of empathy is “hardwired” into their brains. But then Keysers’s team ran a second version of the study – the result was no more the same!

The psychopaths were now asked to focus on victims’ pain and to do their best to imagine how it felt. And when the psychopaths did this, their brains mirrored suffering in almost exactly the same way as non-psychopaths!

Bottom-line – with the right nudge, anyone can be triggered to show empathy.

The book of course talks a lot about short-term empathy and long-term empathy and what works when and the need for more research in select areas etc. There is no way I can sum all that up in a blog (nor should I). If you like the premise and whatever little that I have shared, it’s definitely a meaningful read.

As I end, let me leave you with a Ted talk by Jamil Zaki where he touches upon few more aspects of empathy (like his Roddenbery hypothesis). That will be all for this blog – hope your learnt something useful. If you like what I write, do subscribe to my Sunday newsletter.

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