What is one to do with the other? This is at the base of near all questions of philosophical ethics, and at the heart of near all of our daily social decision-making. Out-group motivated “violence” or uncharitability can be as distant and familiar as traditional examples of xenophobic expression or genetic similarity-discrimination, but also as intimate and subtle as intra-familial normative pressure on “black sheep” deviance. This type of thing persists in part because of who we’ve developed to be in our evolutionary history. If anything distinguishes contemporary experience it might be the immediate connectedness of global events and the immediacy at which we’re subjected to negative social expressions and its repercussions. The richness of the global media landscape brings the remote to our living rooms, and carries our voices from our homes to those of every other across the planet. Whether it be any of the recent incidents in the US, India, South Sudan, Central African Republic, France, the Northern Caucasus, or Xinjiang, in each of these circumstances, the socio-political dymanics are complex.

For the US context for example one could not make sense of it without 1) exploring the systematic creation of economic out-groups in each urban or regional economic network in the country, 2) exploring the process of a population’s association of those economic out-groups with easily identifiable social markers (e.g. race, religious or class-labels), 3) the lived psychological experience of in-group or out-group self-identification or stigmatization, 4) the development of social strategies of survival within both in-group and out-group, and 5) a perhaps inevitable unraveling of that lack of social integration into political and or extra-political conflict, rivalry, and violence. My list is probably incomplete, but I enumerate them only to make the case for a complexity that is all too often boiled down to overly simplistic gut reactions about types of people, and rarely about the dynamics that create populations, small and large. The types of people (or self-referentially valued identifiers) (whether Mensa Member, Vegan, Leftist, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, Arab, people with ADHD, academic, heroin user, etc etc) are never irrelevant insofar as they help actors navigate person-based, relational (role-based), group-based, and collective identity decisions, but each “type” presupposes a social dynamic that acts as background. One could thus say that a necessary precondition to the proper understanding of a person or social situation, one must understand the social dynamics that situate them.

To complicate matters somewhat, that necessary precondition is not sufficient, because we are always more than social products. The entirety of what we call experience (internal and external) is mediated/shaped by our nervous systems. Of our nervous systems, in particular the cerebrum, cerebellum and limbic systems each play an important role in our individual experiences of inter-personal scenarios.

So what does neuroscience say about the experience of in-group and out-group formation and how it is experienced? Summary researched published by Pascal Molenberghs of the University of Queensland, Brisbane gives us a good portrait of findings to date:


The territorial nature of advanced living organisms makes the categorization of entrants into a social world of the utmost importance. The very heart of our meaning-making (the consolidation of what Uexküll would call Umwelt) for humans involves the critical process of social categorization. Our survival depends upon this. Cooperation and bonding or defending against, mitigating the risk of or eliminating threats. While semiotic literature traditionally does not distinguish between the particular elements of this process of social categorization, at the neurological level there appears to be three things taking place in this process: 1) the activation of “identity” as a distinct endo-referencialization derived from social sources (medial-prefrontal cortex activation); 2) social comparison and concomitant emotional coloring of in-group importance (posterior anterior cingulate cortex activation); and 3) strengthening of self-other differentialization (tempoparietal junction activation). With the activation of “identity” it is also noted that the more familiar the social source, the more it is associated with emotional social reasoning (ventral medial prefrontal cortex) and the more unknown or distant the social source, the more it is associated with abstract social reasoning (dorsomedial PFC).

Action Experiences

Once our existential territorialities have established their primary indexes of selves/others, something extremely interesting and unexpected happens at the psychological level. We perceive the actions of those in our in-groups very differently than those of out-groups. Specifically, there are two things of interest: 1) our minds simulate the actions of in-group members in a way that distorts what is actually seen (what one could call inferior parietal lobule perception-action simulation); and 2) our minds vicariously simulate the observed actions and experiences of in-group members (mu suppression). Evolutionarily speaking, both of these traits are crucial to in-group survival for their proportioning pre-cognitive coordination of in-group action and reaction. Philanthropically and/or ethically speaking however, problems that are already present within categorization become more concrete. For example, perception-action simulation can be an obstacle where issues of veracity and accuracy determine decisions of “justice” (legal or extra-judical, contemporary or historical). In-group vicarious simulation also has the unfortunate consequence of lack of vicarious simulation to out-group situations. Experiments involving situations of perception of pain-inducing actions conducted on both in and out-groups show clearly that we do not respond to the pain of Others (out-groups) as we do for ourselves (our in-groups).


This area of research is perhaps the most rich and deserving of its own isolated discussion, but just the highlights: empathy involves three areas, 1) affective (the vicarious experience of the emotions/feelings of others); 2) cognitive (the taking of the perspective of another to understand what that person is thinking/experiencing); and 3) regulatory (the executive function response to social situations). Human capacity for empathy towards out-groups suggests that we are less likely to “share” the pain of out-groups compared to in-groups. More sinisterly, pain (with no distinction between emotional or physical) received by out-groups for whom we are emotionally distant tends to activate regions of our brains associated with pleasure and schadenfreude. This last point forces us to qualify discussion of out-groups by emotional distance since such distance better predicts whether one’s response to an Other is met with medial pre-frontal cortex cognitive empathy in complex situations or instead with insula-reactive disgust or amyglada-reactive fear and neurochemical priming for aggression.

Because of the social necessity to modulate in-group biases and anti-social behavior directed at out-groups there is the need for what’s called regulatory empathy, where our executive function (specifically anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reinforcement) inhibits socially undesirable amygdala level bias responses. The downside here is that the capacity to exercise executive functioning is not infinite, and situations of long duration where reaction inhibition is called upon drains the inhibitor’s ability to use executive function in later tasks due to glucose and glycogen depletion. Another issue is the fact that bias response can activate unconsciously in cases where amygdala activating queues are not presented in ways explicit to consciousness, thus escaping the normal route for activating regulatory empathy.

Bias (Interested Charity)

What conclusions could one draw from this summary? Are we only charitable to our in-groups? Are we conscious of when we are not charitable to our out-groups? It is clear that our brains have evolved to not solely adapt in favor of in-group survival (for purposes of access to needed good and security) but also adjust to complex social circumstances where in and out-groups are either not clearly defined but may be in fact highly malleable. We’re equipped for looking inward (towards our in-groups) and outward (expansive in-group recategorization and regulatory empathy to check in-group favoritism and out-group disinclination). Because group membership modulates perception-action coupling, theory of mind, face perception and empathy, it is something at the very core of our interactions with the world. It is thus that it’s at the core of our capacity to be charitable — to truly give, in Derridaean terms.

To be proactive about countering in-group bias, especially in circumstances where it is implicit, the bias has to be made explicit. Biases in perception and in emotion can both be modulated though cognitive intervention and through regulative empathy. And just as expertise plays a role in down-regulating affective empathy, a conscientialization of the implicit sources of bias and the familiarization of the process and contingency of modulation of social categorization, bias loosens its hold over us.

Sometimes its easy to be charitable to those far away from us, because they’re not our Other (those that we feel the world could do without). Other times its easy to be charitable to a local out-group because they’re the “devil you know”. And finally there are occasions where you’re the Other, and are asking why your world is so uncharitable. These experiences are not going anywhere, but being aware of group membership related limits on feeling, perception and thought is a first step in being able to move beyond them.

Pascal Molenberghs “The neuroscience of in-group bias” – Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 37 (2013) 1530–1536