Opinion

Can Art Make Us Care More?

Gustav Vigeland's expressive sculptures in Oslo's Vigeland Park. Photo CC-BY Jonas Lamis.
Gustav Vigeland’s expressive sculptures in Oslo’s Vigeland Park. (image via CC-BY Jonas Lamis)

OAKLAND, Calif. — So much of empathy seems to be determined by the position we occupy in the world. If you’re around certain types of people and see them as equals, you’re more likely to relate to them and understand what they’re going through. A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that “Rich People Just Care Less”:

While Mr. Keltner’s research finds that the poor, compared with the wealthy, have keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions, in general, those with the most power in society seem to pay particularly little attention to those with the least power. To be sure, high-status people do attend to those of equal rank — but not as well as those low of status do.

It echoes a bit a recent piece from Racialicious that looked at research on how the skin color of someone being harmed affects how much we empathize with them:

“All things being equal, if you show a person an imag[e] of a dark- and a light-skinned person being harmed, they will most likely react more strongly to the latter. Studies have found evidence of this using both self-report and measures of brain activity. Notably, both Black and White people respond similarly.”

And then there’s a piece from NPR that notes that “Power fundamentally changes how the brain operates.” Those who felt less powerful also had higher levels of empathy for other people.

Allora & Calzadilla's Hope Hippo at the Aspen Modern Art Museum's Restless Empathy exhibition. CC-BY-SA Ed Schipul.
Allora & Calzadilla’s “Hope Hippo” at the Aspen Modern Art Museum’s Restless Empathy exhibition. (image via CC-BY-SA Ed Schipul)

There’s an obvious challenge here. Those with power by definition have the greatest ability to effect positive change in social situations, and yet they also seem to be the ones who have the least empathy. Exposure to other lifestyles might help, but having power means having the power to control your social environment and thus block out the lives and concerns of those around you. It’s a difficult bridge to cross.

One article that’s been making the rounds lately is a study from the New School that suggests that reading literary fiction actually improves our ability to step into another person’s mindset. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” noted the study’s authors in a press release. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”

Picasso's The Blind Man's Meal.  CC BY-NC-ND Matthew Benjamin Coleman.
Picasso’s “The Blind Man’s Meal” (1903) (image via CC BY-NC-ND Matthew Benjamin Coleman)

Another recent study from USC looked at theater exercises as a method of promoting empathy amongst medical students. “Despite the challenges and lessons learned,” noted the study’s authors after examining some of the hurdles the students faced in the exercise, “the theater workshop was an innovative and emotionally powerful attempt to foster empathy in medical students.” Meanwhile, a piece in EducationNext pointed at how visiting art museums can actually increase tolerance, with more pronounced effects amongst people from rural and impoverished regions.

None of these studies points to art as a panacea, but they at least suggest that art, media and literary fiction can have an impact. And with increasing socioeconomic divides in the United States and other countries, art seems more important than ever as a bridge to empathy for those who are less fortunate. The trick, of course, is getting people to cross it.

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