Research performed by a team at the School of Education at the University of Cordoba shows an indirect relationship between empathy and the development of prejudices by means of personality and ideological attitudes
This is a subject that is hard to define and harder still to conceptually frame as the subject of a study, due to the overlap with other traits like emotional intelligence or kindness. According to some theories, it is roughly “putting yourself in another person’s shoes.” University of Cordoba Education Professor José Luis Álvarez Castillo defines empathy as “the ability to see things from another person’s perspective from a cognitive and emotional point of view.” That is to say, to imagine and understand other people’s beliefs and opinions and experience their feelings and emotions, understanding and feeling the world through their eyes.
Specifically, this group has examined empathetic behavior and attempted to unravel the impact and association that can exist between empathy and the development of prejudices. According to the results of the research, empathy does not have direct effects on prejudice. Nevertheless, it does have an indirect influence via personality and attitudes, particularly by means of openness to experience and what is known as “right-wing authoritarianism” in scientific literature, an attitude related to defending social stability and the values one perceives as characteristic of his/her culture. Therefore, if a person has very little empathy, there is a certain likelihood that he/she will score high on right-wing authoritarianism, and indirectly would be more susceptible to show prejudice and possibly to develop discriminatory behavior towards certain groups.
As Professor Álvarez explains, the basis for his research was a well established dual model for predicting prejudice developed by John Duckitt, Emeritus Professor at the University of Auckland and an expert on social psychology. This system is able to predict prejudice that a person could develop taking into account personality traits like openness to experience and kindness, as well as two ideological attitudes, the above-mentioned right-wing authoritarianism and “social dominance orientation,” a concept that refers to defending differences between classes and cultures, and the belief that a hierarchical society is preferable over a horizontal one.
Thus, the University of Cordoba research team used this model that initially considered personality traits, worldviews and attitudes, and they incorporated empathy to observe how it behaves in terms of predicting prejudices when a wide range of variables are included. Throughout the study, data were taken from over 250 young people with a cross-sectional design using self-reporting instruments, leading to results obtained via structural equation analysis.
Profesor Álvarez is positive that an empathetic person is less likely to develop prejudices. As he points out, the study demonstrates “empathy is still important even when inserted in complex models, and it continues to be a strong variable when it comes to explaining why a person develops a negative attitude toward certain groups,” so “at university we have to keep fostering it, especially the part of it that can be learned.”
Alvarez-Castillo, JL; Fernandez-Caminero, G; Gonzalez-Gonzalez, H. Is empathy one of the Big Three? Identifying its role in a dual-process model of ideology and blatant and subtle prejudice. PLOS ONE. Apr 5;13(4):e0195470. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0195470. eCollection 2018.