How compassion helps against prejudice
Published on 03.08.2021
Evolutionarily speaking, humans have always been compartmentalised thinkers. Back when we still lived in caves, this was actually rather practical, because our survival often depended on being able to decide within seconds whether the ragged-looking individual over there was a friend or foe. But what about today?
Our caves may be a little more modern today, but we still think in very rudimentary ways. The stone-age part of our brain just doesn’t want to give up on compartmentalised thinking, because it helps it to orient itself in the world (which has become a little more complex since our caveman days) — and because it flatters our self-esteem.
This is because people do not just long for a general feeling of belongingness but want to be part of a group that they consider “better” in one way or another. And this usually happens automatically. In her book “Selbstmitgefühl” (Self-Compassion), author Kristin Neff addresses precisely this topic, referring, among other things, to the research paper “Social Identity and Intergroup Behaviour” (1974) by Henri Tajfel. Tajfel found that members of one’s own group are viewed more sympathetically and are supported more willingly, while the members of another group are more likely to be mistrusted — even if said groups were created at random. These group-identity-related sympathies and prejudices are responsible for everything from schoolyard brawls to racism and even war.
While group membership can give us a pleasant feeling of security and acceptance on the one hand, it can also lead to chaos and injustice on the other — at least when we define our group boundaries too narrowly. Researchers Nyla R. Branscombe and Michael J. A. Wohl have shed further light on this in their study “Forgiveness and Collective Guilt Assignment to Historical Perpetrator Groups Depend on Level of Social Category Inclusiveness” (2005): When we limit our affiliation to only one small group, we quickly start to develop divisive us-versus-them thoughts, but as soon as we change our focus to include all people as part of a single human race, then this inevitably leads to more sympathy for one another.
So, what can we do? Well, for one thing, we can continue to remind ourselves that apart from the differences that supposedly divide us, there are also many things that we all share in common and that unite us in our humanity. This is another reason why we want to use Valeriana to bring people together and strengthen the sense of community in our society, far beyond labels, classifications and prejudices. And that can remind us again and again that the only thing that really divides us is our thoughts, some of which we would probably have been better off just leaving behind in the cave.
To be continued:
- Study: Nyla R. Branscombe and Michael J. A. Wohl: “Forgiveness and Collective Guilt Assignment to Historical Perpetrator Groups Depend on Level of Social Category Inclusiveness”
- Book: Kristin Neff: “Selbstmitgefühl. Wie wir uns mit unseren Schwächen versöhnen und uns selbst der beste Freund werden” (Self-Compassion. How to Reconcile with Our Weaknesses and Become Our Own Best Friend)
- You can find more stories for an even stronger feeling of community here as well as here.