The Key to Becoming More Empathetic
I don’t typically follow sports, except for the week the Milwaukee Bucks competed in the NBA finals. Watching the games in my Milwaukee home was exciting, but the really fun part came between the games. No matter where I went in the city, I felt connected to people, whether a stranger at the grocery store, my elderly neighbor, or another parent at my kids’ day camp. For that week, a city that’s normally divided had one thing in common: We were all Bucks fans.
This temporary kinship isn’t just an easy in-road small talk at the coffee shop. Feeling like you share an identity or goal can actually change the way you interact with people on a deeper, important level. The more connected you feel to someone, the more you’ll want to understand them — and as a result, you’ll probably be more cooperative and kind, too.
Research suggests we tend to discriminate against people we label as in an “out group” and we prefer those who are in an “in group.” In other words, we give preferential treatment people who are like us. That bias may be hard-wired, but it’s not as hopeless as it sounds. At any time, any of us can find similarities that help us want to understand others, and as a result, help them.
For example, NYU professor Jay Van Bavel, co-author of the forthcoming book The Power of Us, conducted an fMRI study in 2008. He and his colleagues found that when people are assigned to a team with others, their brains perceived those people more positively — even if they were part of a group they’d normally stigmatize.
Focusing on what you have in common with another person is like mentally assigning them to your “in group.” Choosing to see someone different as “like you” can increase how connected you feel to them and, as a result, boost your willingness to see their perspective. According to Van Bavel, sports games are a common example, but other, smaller similarities can make a big difference.
For example, that anti-vax neighbor might be your polar opposite in every way, but you have one thing in common: your kids go to the same school. If overbearing grandparents annoy you, remember you share affection for your parents. And when your spouse feels like they’re from another planet, think of the shared values and interests that attracted you to them in the first place.
It all boils down to a simple question. If you’re struggling to see the good in someone else, and more importantly, struggling to want to help them, ask yourself, “What do we have in common?” These similarities, even if they seem small, can help us form alliances and help each other when it matters most.