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Learning Cross-Cultural Empathy

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

I, like millions of people across the world, have been taking in information on the protests going on in America, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

It actually got me thinking about a 2015 study about cultural empathy training. 

I’ve worked with clients with widely differing ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, etc. and I’ve learned feeling like an outsider is not good for people's mental health.

But those cultural boundaries can be surprisingly easily diminished. 

Surprisingly, positive experiences with people from another group trigger a learning effect in the brain, which increases empathy. 

When a person hasn’t had contact with people from another group — a racial or religious group, for example — feelings of empathy for that group are low. It’s easy to see them as something separate from and less important than yourself.

Scientists from the University of Zurich measured those empathic feelings in interactions between groups, and what they found was encouraging.

Here’s how the study worked: Participants were divided into groups. They were told they would be receiving shocks to the back of their hands, but that everyone would have the opportunity to pay to spare people in other groups from shocks. They measured empathic activity as participants watched other participants receive shocks.

At first, empathy for members of other groups was low. As the experiment went on and participants observed non-group members kindly sparing others from pain, feelings of empathy quickly increased. And the empathy increased not just for the individual doing the kind act, but for every member of that individual’s group.

The scientists find these results hopeful. They show peaceful coexistence can come closer into reach after just a few positive interactions with people from another group.

I think we can all take this lesson to heart, especially as we listen to voices of disenfranchised groups in the United States right now. We can learn to take something like these scientific findings, and translate them into peace. 

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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