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Are people who encounter hate speech more often unlikely to feel empathy for those who suffer? And, if so, why is this the case? And does this only apply to empathy toward strangers? Agnieszka Pluta and colleagues attempt to answer these questions in a recently published Scientific Reports paper.

Fomenting the fear of strangers was one of the tools of this year’s parliamentary campaign. Hateful content against refugees, Germans, Jews, and other ethnic groups was often uttered by male and female politicians eager to win our votes. They were accompanied by female and male journalists in the public media and authors of posts published on the Internet.

Independent campaign observers – NGO workers, social commentators, and academics – pointed out the severe consequences of such a political debate. Referring to the results of empirical studies, they stressed that public expressions of hatred that has no place in a democratic discussion can lead to an increase in prejudice and discrimination. It was also said that hate speech can take a toll on the mental health of those to whom it is directed. While accurate, these remarks were not compelling enough to convince those involved in the campaign and those commenting on it online to refrain from hate speech.
Interestingly, additional arguments for abandoning hateful content in public debate are provided by the research of a team of Polish psychologists led by Agnieszka Pluta. Their research shows that hate speech can have negative consequences, not only for intergroup relations but also for how we treat members of our own group. What does this mean? It turns out it is primarily about how hate speech affects our empathtic abilities.
Hate speech and ability to empathize
Where did the authors get the idea that hate speech might be related to empathy toward both “us” and “them”? As they describe in the paper titled “Exposure to hate speech deteriorates neurocognitive mechanisms of the ability to understand others’ pain”, they based their assumptions on studying exposure to various forms of violence. They have learned that people who encounter aggression more frequently become “resistant” to it over time, which can manifest, among other things, in less intense emotions in response to observed expressions of aggression and less sympathy for the victims of such incidents.
However, as the researchers point out, the studies conducted to date have not directly tested the hypothesis that hate speech, like other forms of violence, might contribute to a decline in empathy for those who are suffering. Therefore, this alone accounted for the novelty of the research. In addition, the authors wanted to answer the question of what mechanism might be responsible for the observed decline in empathy. They tested three competing explanations.

On the one hand, the authors of the paper found that, according to the model of so-called failures of empathy), exposure to hate speech can lead to decline in compassion toward members of an out-group (e.g., Arabs) and increase in compassion toward members of one’s in-group (e.g., Poles). On the other hand, referring to research on dehumanization, the authors assumed that encountering hate speech targeted at strangers could lead to a denial of their humanity. Thus, exposure to verbal violence of this type should reduce the tendency to empathize with strangers, without affecting the ability to sympathize with members of our own group. Finally, invoking the “empathic numbing” hypothesis, the researchers expected that increased levels of hate speech in public spaces could lead to a generalized state of exhaustion. Therefore, people who read such comments may be, in general, less able to empathize with people suffering, regardless of which group they belong to.
State of empathic numbness
To test their hypothesis and better understand the mechanisms underlying the effects of exposure to hate speech on the propensity to empathize, the authors conducted a study using neuro-imaging (more specifically, functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI). The study involved 30 volunteers, assigned randomly to two conditions: a control condition, in which they read Internet comments that were not hate speech, and an experimental condition, in which they read hate speech.
Then, all male and female respondents were presented with dozens of short stories designed to elicit sympathy for the suffering person. For example, the participants read about an incident whose protagonist seriously injured his finger while cutting vegetables. The participants read the same stories twice: once about a Pole (a member of their in-group) and once about an Arab (a member of an out-group). It allowed the researchers to test whether similar areas of the brain responsible for compassion would be activated when faced with the same examples of suffering by “their own” and a “stranger.”

The results of the study confirmed the researchers’ assumptions. In people exposed to hate speech, brain activity in areas responsible for the ability to empathize (specifically, those associated with imagining the other person’s mental states) was lower compared to those in the control group. Importantly, this was true for empathy towards suffering Poles and suffering Arabs, which means that exposure to hateful content can result in empathic numbing, that is, generally affecting the ability to empathize.

Thus, although it is a far-fetched conclusion, it seems that the use of hateful content in a political campaign – in addition to not adhering to the standards of a democratic public debate – may have more negative consequences than previously described. Indeed, hate speech can lead to the formation of a less empathetic society, whose representatives will be less likely to respond to people’s harm and pain. It should be remembered, however, that the results described relate to only one study. Therefore, it is worth taking a closer look at this topic and conducting further research in the area – which we encourage you to do!

More information:

Pluta, A., Mazurek, J., Wojciechowski, J. et al. Exposure to hate speech deteriorates neurocognitive mechanisms of the ability to understand others’ pain. Sci Rep 13, 4127 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-31146-1

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