Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
Stubborn conflicts cause an empathy gap in teens

Intergroup conflict, also known as civil conflict, is one of the world’s most serious problems as warfare has shifted from the battlefield to something entangled in civilian life. The constant exposure to stressful conflict situations affects everyone, but can have a disproportionate impact on adolescent brain development. A recent study published in PNAS found that adolescents who grow up in protracted civil conflict are more empathically and cognitively attuned to the people within their own group and less sensitive to pain felt by others.

The researchers who conducted this study recruited 85 adolescents from a conflict-ravaged region of Israel. They categorized participants as identifying as Arab-Palestinian or Jewish-Israeli. The participants were shown a series of well-validated photographs of other people who clearly belonged to one of these groups, in painful or non-painful conditions. During this task, each participant’s brain activity was measured using MEG (magnetoencephalography), a functional neuroimaging technique that tracks the magnetic effects of currents moving through neurons to visualize brain activity.

The authors found that adolescents from both groups (Arab and Jewish) responded differently to in-group and out-group images. All subjects showed significant brain activation in pain empathy regions when the pain images contained in-group characters. But when an outgroup figure was presented, there was no difference in response, whether or not that figure experienced pain. So all participants could have an empathic response, but only to members of their own group

The group of Palestinian adolescents also showed significant similarities in terms of their brain region activation that they showed while looking at pictures of other members of the group. This was not seen in the Israeli teenagers. The authors suspect this is due to different levels of ethnocentric identification between these two groups – Arab-Palestinian adolescents previously reported identifying very strongly with their own ethnic group. This may cause the similar responses in brain activity seen in the Arab-Palestinian teens.

The authors also looked at the participants’ social behavior when they interacted with teens from the other ethnic group. They found that both groups of adolescents showed moderate levels of intergroup hostility and low willingness to compromise between groups. They also found that the teens showed less empathy, as measured by verbal patterns within conflict and non-conflict conversations, toward adolescents of the other ethnic group than toward members of the group.

This study shows that adolescents’ exposure to protracted conflict can have a significant impact on how they interact with people who are on the other side of that conflict. The brains of these adolescents no longer display the typical response to other people’s pain if they are members of the outgroup. These findings suggest that interventions to prevent the continuation of intractable conflicts may include promoting compassionate encounters between teens on opposite sides.

PNAS2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1612903113 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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