Last week, RW’s own Kelly Lynch wrote Volunteering as a Means to an End: My Disorienting Dilemma. She took us through her experiences with culture shock abroad and a conflicted afternoon being a “voluntourist” in the Dominican Republic. This blog is its followup, which more deeply explores the human path towards (or sometimes away from) empathy. Start with part 1 by by clicking the link above.

By Kelly Lynch

When considering what [volunteerism] can do to help us reach beyond our economic status, our race, our sexuality, our gender, and our nationality, I keep coming back to The Brain’s Empathy Gap, an article which follows the research of scientist Emile Bruneau. This section introduces the tension Bruneau’s research seeks to resolve by analyzing subjects from different sides of varying longterm, culturally entrenched conflicts around the world:

“So far, the link between f.M.R.I. data and behavior has been tenuous. Many f.M.R.I. studies on empathy involve scanning subjects’ brains while they look at images of hands slammed in doors or of faces poked with needles. Scientists have shown that the same brain regions light up when you watch such things happen to someone else as when you experience them or imagine them happening to you.

To me, that’s not empathy. It’s what you do with that information that determines whether it’s empathy or not. A psychopath might demonstrate the same neural flashes in response to the same painful images but experience glee instead of distress.”

And so the question becomes, when you can feel another person’s pain, what do you do with it? I think there may be two “empathy gaps” in question here:

  1. The gap we create when we empathize heavily with our “in-group,” repressing empathy for “out-groups.”
  2. The gap between feeling and acting. What causes you to bridge the gap between you feeling that person’s pain and then acting on that feeling? Your neural pathways can “light up” when you resonate with the pain you see, but it’s what you do with that feeling that defines your character, your interactions with others and, within the context of volunteerism, the extent of your social impact.

In transformative volunteering, there’s the concept of creating proximity to the beneficiary which can be achieved through face-to-face interactions like I had in the Dominican Republic, or it can be just as effective through a photo and a story. It’s creating a relatable narrative to an individual or group that you can either see or visualize – really, the beginning of empathetic feeling.

There’s really no getting past the fact that empathy is a highly emotional human experience.

But what is it about feeling empathy for the individual that brings our attention to the bigger picture, or to the issues surrounding that individual’s suffering or oppression? And is there a right or a wrong way to show your empathy? Paul Bloom, in his article, Against Empathy, says that empathy is biased. And to a certain extent, I think he’s right.

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’ Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.”

There’s really no getting past the fact that empathy is a highly emotional human experience, and that emotion can be blinding; strong empathy for one group can create an underlying psychological bias against another group that does not hold similar values. But it is not impossible for humans to hold strong empathy for one group and feel the same for what’s perceived as the opposing side. I would even argue that it is the strength of the emotion behind empathy that fuels this possibility, this ability to balance opposing sides.

In The Brain’s Empathy Gap, there is a focus on Bruneau’s research around the resistance to integration of the Roma into Hungarian society. In an earlier study of Israelis and Arabs living in the Boston area, he had found that “Israeli subjects were more likely to harbor anti-Arab biases and to rate Arab perspectives as unreasonable, and vice versa.” But, there were three outliers “who held the same types of anti-Arab biases as the other Israeli subjects, but their brain scans, and their reasonableness ratings, indicated that they were able to identify with the Arab perspective nonetheless.” These individuals were Israeli peace activists.

… it seems to come from disorienting dilemmas where they have experienced shame, pain, or suffering put upon them by others.

While in Hungary, Bruneau met up with Gabor Daroczi, Executive Director of Romaversitas Foundation, and Kornelia Magyar, Director of the Hungarian Progressive Institute. He asked what made her, an educated white woman, take up the Roma cause? This gave Magyar pause. After a brief silence, she explained that she grew up in a city close to the Austrian border and that she always felt like an outsider when her family would cross over to go shopping.

Daroczi couldn’t help interjecting. “After the fall of communism,” he said, “Hungarians crossed the border in droves, mostly to purchase basic goods. It was written in Hungarian on the walls of the shops, ‘Hungarians: don’t steal!”’

“It felt shameful,” Magyar added, nodding. “I think that really affected me.”

This wasn’t the first time Bruneau had heard a story like this. There’s no scientific evidence (or if there is, please send it my way) that delves further into this phenomenon, but it’s striking to me from the perspective of our work at Realized Worth. At some point in their lives, many of these activists have had what we would call a transformative experience. And it’s not an experience rooted in a positive, safe space; but rather it seems to come from disorienting dilemmas where they have experienced shame, pain, or suffering put upon them by others.

Using volunteerism and volunteer space as a mechanism, as a means to an end – to develop empathy for an “out group” or an “other” – has more potential for success when a volunteer is guided by an experienced leader like we saw in José [as referenced in part 1]. Volunteer space becomes almost like a controlled environment and a safe space to unearth individual psychological bias and make sense of it. Identifying and accepting unknown or unacknowledged psychological bias is probably one of the hardest parts of an individual’s journey toward self awareness, toward becoming more socially aware and prosocial. A part of me wonders about the effect these activists have on people who volunteer to support their cause – if their leadership can inspire, if their empathy becomes a model for others.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Bruneau:

“… if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So, I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.

Read part 1 here

Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kelly Lynch
Project Manager, Brand and Content Specialist
Realized Worth