Tribalism is known to be one of the significant inhibitors to compassion. When group identities are created, individuals can be encouraged to behave callously and sometimes cruelly towards those they perceive as being in the “outer” group. Even those who generally behave warmly and kindly to others can be driven to extremes of behaviour – just think of some of the historic instances of violence at sporting matches or the way soldiers can be trained to kill. If we are to face-down existential threats and find ways to peacefully coexist, we have to identify interventions that can mitigate our tribal instincts – where they might lead us to do harm – and instead a mindset that is broad and inclusive.
A recent study led by a research group in Hong Kong investigated whether a brief compassion-based training could change participants’ perceptions of outgroup members.
The study randomized 223 participants into one of two groups.
The experimental group watched a 20-minute guided compassion-based meditation video and the control group watched an unrelated educational video.
Participants completed measures of outgroup emotions, attitudes, and donation behaviors for three outgroups (ethnic minorities, Mainland immigrants, people with opposite political views).
The researchers found that the group who learned compassion had a reduction in negative outgroup emotions and attitudes. The effects were greater for ethnic minorities and immigrants than for political opponents. Interestingly, the study didn’t find any differences in donation behaviors between the experimental and control conditions.
While this study narrowly focuses on a brief compassion-based induction, this study importantly suggests that even a brief intervention based in compassion might be enough to change opinions about different social groups. As such, compassion-based practices might be a viable route to promote healthy intergroup relationships. Future research will have the opportunity to test whether this theory applies similarly across different cultures and social structures.