Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses

M. Cikara, E. Bruneau, J. J. Van Bavel, R. Saxe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not inevitable; people routinely fail to empathize with others, especially members of different social or cultural groups. In five experiments, we systematically explore how social identity, functional relations between groups, competitive threat, and perceived entitativity contribute to intergroup empathy bias: the tendency not only to empathize less with out-group relative to in-group members, but also to feel pleasure in response to their pain (and pain in response to their pleasure). When teams are set in direct competition, affective responses to competition-irrelevant events are characterized not only by less empathy toward out-group relative to in-group members, but also by increased counter-empathic responses: Schadenfreude and Glückschmerz (Experiment 1). Comparing responses to in-group and out-group targets against responses to unaffiliated targets in this competitive context suggests that intergroup empathy bias may be better characterized by out-group antipathy rather than extraordinary in-group empathy (Experiment 2). We also find that intergroup empathy bias is robust to changes in relative group standing-feedback indicating that the out-group has fallen behind (Experiment 3a) or is no longer a competitive threat (Experiment 3b) does not reduce the bias. However, reducing perceived in-group and out-group entitativity can significantly attenuate intergroup empathy bias (Experiment 4). This research establishes the boundary conditions of intergroup empathy bias and provides initial support for a more integrative framework of group-based empathy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)110-125
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - Nov 2014


  • Competition
  • Conflict
  • Empathy
  • Intergroup
  • Schadenfreude
  • Social identity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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