The role of intergroup contact in the link from general to out-group specific empathy among children in a conflict-affected country

Laura K. Taylor, Jasmina Tomašić Humer , Jocelyn B. Dautel

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Children growing up in the wake of war face the challenge of rebuilding their societies. A host of theoretical and empirical research has suggested the potential transformative power of intergroup conflict (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2005), or bringing children together from opposing sides of the conflict. However, more recent field studies in real-life settings have called into question the long-term effects and the potential equivalence of prejudice reduction for majority and minority group members (Mousa, 2020). At the same time, a meta-analysis of the mechanisms of prejudice reduction, typically measured as a change in attitudes toward the other group as whole, found empathy to be a significant mediator (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008). Empathy, in general, has been identified as an important predictor of improved intergroup relations and prosocial behavior across group lines, particularly in conflict settings (e.g., Hall & Kahn, 2019; Hosson et al., 2018; Taylor et al., 2020). Complementing these findings, the Developmental Peacebuilding Model (Taylor, 2020) has led to efforts to tease apart effects on different targets of empathy (e.g., O’Driscoll et al., 2020). A bias in empathy, or the ability to accurately perceive the emotional state of others, has been shown across different ethnic and racial groups (Han, 2018) using neurological methods with adults (e.g., Avenanti et al., 2010; Xu et al., 2009). Here, we take first steps to examine the link from general empathy, i.e., no specified target, to outgroup-specific empathy in children growing up in the wake of war. We test if the level of intergroup contact mediates this link, hypothesizing that children who are higher in general empathy may be more open to contact, which in turn would relate to higher empathy for members of the conflicting outgroup. The sample includes 155 children (ages 6 to 11, M = 8.77, SD = 1.15; 51% female) split between ethnic majority Croats (65%) and ethnic minority Serbs (35%), consistent with their relative size in Vukovar, a city in eastern Croatia along the border with Serbia. The city of Vukovar was devastated during the fall of the Former Yugoslavia, and today, tensions remain between the two ethnic groups and schools remain divided along ethnic lines. Controlling for demographic variables of age, gender and ethnic background, bootstrapped mediation revealed a significant indirect effect of general empathy on outgroup-specific empathy via intergroup contact, as hypothesized. That is, children who reported higher empathy in general, were more likely to report higher amounts of intergroup contact. Greater intergroup contact was significantly linked with empathy for the other ethnic group. Given that past research has found both general and outgroup-specific empathy to be related to higher outgroup prosocial behaviors, such as sharing and helping, these findings have important implications. These findings suggest that intergroup contact can be mobilized not only to reduce prejudice, but also to enhance other outgroup emotions and capacities. Implications for practice, considering the divided nature of social life in Vukovar, and other settings of intergroup conflict, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 07 Apr 2021
EventSociety for Research in Child Development Biennal Meeting - Virtual, virtual, online, United States
Duration: 04 Apr 202109 Apr 2021


ConferenceSociety for Research in Child Development Biennal Meeting
Abbreviated titleSRCD
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Cityvirtual, online


Dive into the research topics of 'The role of intergroup contact in the link from general to out-group specific empathy among children in a conflict-affected country'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this