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The relationship between empathy and sports allegiance is the subject of a fascinating study.

Mark Levine and colleagues from Lancaster University in England gathered several groups of rabid fans of the Manchester United soccer team. In the first part of the study, they asked fans to complete a set of questionnaires about their loyalties and feeling of identification with the team. Then they were directed to walk to a different building across campus to watch a short film of their team playing.

Along the walk, a nearby jogger slipped and fell, grabbing his ankle and shouting in pain. He was an actor, working with the researchers. Sometimes the injured person was wearing a Manchester United shirt; sometimes he was wearing the jersey of Liverpool, Manchester's most bitter rival. Other times, he was wearing a plain, unbranded shirt.

When the injured man was wearing the Manchester United jersey, 92 percent of the participants stopped to help him. When he was wearing a Liverpool jersey or a blank shirt, only 30 percent of them paused to help.

Then the researchers tweaked the conditions with some new participants. This time, instead of asking the Manchester United fans how much they loved their team, they gave them questionnaires asking them to write about how much they love the game of soccer. When this group encountered the man in need, they were still helpful when he was in a Manchester United jersey (80 percent stopped), but 70 percent of them also stopped to aid the injured Liverpool fan. Only 22 percent did anything for the man who didn't appear to be a soccer fan.

Some takeaways: We tend to empathize with people when we think they are like us. But we often fail to extend empathy or compassion toward those we believe to be different from us. Here's what seems important to me. Our notion of similarity is flexible. With a slight change of perception, someone who once seemed an outsider can become a member of your own group.

In my early college years, I thought that nearly everything you need to know about me you could learn from three stickers on my car: Ole Miss Rebels, Beta Theta Pi (my fraternity) and the Episcopal Church. At an age before the prefrontal cortex kicks in with its more mature decision-making and social behavior, I lived in my tribal mind. I was much more likely to respond empathetically to someone in an Ole Miss jersey than someone, say, in an Arkansas Razorback jersey.

So much of our human suffering is grounded in our tribal brains. Throughout our history, when we believe ourselves to be different from "those others," we have managed to rationalized a range of negative responses from neglect to oppression to violence.

But the good news is we can change our minds. With a slight change of perception, someone who once seemed an outsider can become a member of our own group. I am convinced that each of us can choose to identify empathetically with every human being. That seems to be the path to peace.

Last week I asked an American History professor to help me with something. I asked him to point me to some articles about the different groups we have hurt and oppressed in our nation's history, particularly through our immigration and citizenship policies. It's an impressive list.

He started 400 years ago in 1619 when around 20 captured persons from Angola arrived in Virginia enslaved as property. Early settlers and later Americans called some native residents of this land "savages" and rationalized genocide. Many colonists came to this land to escape religious persecution, and once settled, often created their own forms of religious oppression.

Since becoming the United States, we have enacted discriminatory laws and policies against residents who were Irish, German, Chinese, Australians, Italians, Japanese and other Asians, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Native Americans, Mexicans and Latinos, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews. The history of black American suffering is particularly cruel.

We don't have to be this way. We can change jerseys.

What if we intentionally chose to embrace our role as human beings as our fundamental identity? What if being human were more important than being American, being Christian, being Republican or Democrat? Being fully human can make us better and more empathetic in the exercise of our other identities.

What if we could see ourselves in every other human being? Might we become more empathetic, more compassionate, more forgiving, more loving?

More human? More humane?

Commentary on 12/03/2019

Print Headline: Shedding our jerseys

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