Can the neuroscience of empathy help to solve a problem as intractable as the Israel-Palestine conflict?
That is the question that was considered by academics who gathered at the British Academy in London on 7 and 8 March to discuss how insights from research might help the region to achieve peace.
Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a professor in the University of Haifa’s department of psychology, presented research showing that when groups are in conflict, they rate their own group as suffering more than outsiders in identical situations.
When Israeli Jews and Palestinians were shown a picture of a hand shut in a car bonnet, they rated this as being far more painful when told that the owner of the hand had a name from their own group, compared with the other group or Europeans, her research found.
But when asked to read a short paragraph beforehand about the person trapped in the car bonnet – such as “Muhammad is an extrovert kind of guy. He has a large circle of friends around him” – differences in the perception of pain between groups disappeared.
This suggested that cinema, television and the media could help to promote inter-group empathy by presenting more characters from different groups, Professor Shamay-Tsoory told delegates at Empathy Neuroscience: Translational Relevance for Conflict Resolution.
In an earlier presentation, Ahmad Abu-Akel, a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, suggested creating a chronological map of the region to see when and where empathy had been highest, and explore which factors – health outcomes, employment and so on – correlated with peaks of trust.
“Unfortunately, it’s now really, really low,” Dr Abu-Akel said of levels of empathy in the region.
Meanwhile, Nawal Musleh-Motut, a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University in Canada, recounted the success of a project that had paired members of the Israeli and the Palestinian diasporas in Canada to share their family histories and photos of the Holocaust and the Nakba – the name given to the expulsion or flight of Palestinians from their homes in the war of 1948.
But during a question and answer session, one participant questioned whether empathy between two sides was enough – political will was required as well, he said. The empathy-building truth and reconciliation processes in South Africa and South America had occurred after a new political settlement, not before, it was pointed out.