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More evidence of how politics gets in the way of empathy

protesters arguing
REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
A new study suggests people have trouble empathizing with those they disagree with.

OK. This may be a “duh” study (at least for MinnPost readers), but I found it interesting nevertheless:

Apparently, we find it more difficult to be empathic — to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes — when the other person has different political views, according to a study published online last month in the journal Psychological Science.

The study, which was conducted by Phoebe Ellsworth, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Michigan, and Ed O’Brien, a graduate student in social psychology at the same institution, looked at whether people would project their own visceral states (specifically, hunger and thirst) onto people who hold political or social opinions with which they strongly disagree.

Many other studies have shown that visceral states affect what we think other people are experiencing. When we’re cold or thirsty, for example, we believe other people are cold or thirsty, too.

But it appears we may do this only when we think the other people are like us.

A two-part study

The current study involved two experiments. In both, undergraduate students (120 in one experiment; 141 in the other) were asked to read a story about a hiker who gets lost in the winter without any food, water or extra clothes. The story also said the hiker was taking a break from a political campaign. In some versions, the hiker was a left-wing, pro-gay-rights Democrat. In others, he (or she) was a right-wing, anti-gay-rights Republican. Students were randomly given one or the other version of the story to read.

After reading the story, the students were asked which of the three forgotten items had made the hike most unpleasant for the protagonist and which item they thought he/she most regretted not packing. The students were also asked how hungry, thirsty and cold they felt (on a scale of 1-10). Finally, they were asked to provide demographic information, which included responses about their political values.

In the first experiment, half the students were approached to read the story while they were waiting at an outdoor bus stop in the middle of winter (temperatures ranged from minus 14 to 30). The other half read the story while sitting in a warm university library. (They were the control group.) All the students were told they were participating in a study about reading comprehension.

In the second experiment, students were brought into a laboratory to read the story, allegedly for a research project on nutrition and attention. They were given snacks (potato chips, saltines and candy) that induce thirst. Half were permitted to drink water with the snacks (the control group); the other half weren’t.

A matter of politics

The findings were similar in both experiments. Cold and thirsty students who held the same political views as the fictional hiker tended to judge the hiker as being cold or thirsty, too. But that was not the case if the students’ politics were opposite those of the hiker.

In other words, political differences appear to override even our strong innate human desire to project our visceral feelings onto those around us.

That may mean, say the study’s authors, that there’s a limit to our ability to empathize with people with whom we differ politically.

You think?

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Comments (8)

I couldn't find the raw data

for this study to see how the authors were able to ask the students to "provide demographic information, which included responses about their political values."

By what measure or criteria did they use to determine political values? Did the students self-identify as liberals or conservatives or did the authors surmise "political views" based on answers to a set of questions that were interpreted by the authors and assigned a "political view?"

I ask because most college students who a self-identified conservatives are religious or social conservatives who are much more compassionate and empathic towards their peers than older conservatives are who come to the ideology from a different perspective than a young person would.

Same as young liberals who's reason for empathy has to do with their collectivist leanings and not because of the same source of compassion towards an individual as a young Christian.

Maybe you would have better luck getting your hands on the actual methodology and raw data because it seems to me that these definitions or criteria are a lynchpin to the study's conclusion.

Raw data or not

I see…

Young “conservatives” are, almost by definition, compassionate and empathic, while young liberals, who apparently by definition cannot be Christian (there are no Christian liberals?), are incapable of genuine compassion or empathy because of… their “collectivist leanings.”

I seldom laugh out loud at a comment from Mr. Tester, but this one provoked hilarity. I'd suggest he go back and read his King James version a few more times.

I didn't say that young liberals' compassion

was disingenuous, just that it comes from a different source. It's not that liberals don't believe in God, Ray, it's just that they'd rather worship Government.

As a young liberal

I'm empiric evidence that you are wrong.

I can't find the raw data

for your assertions, either. I thought you were a computer guy, not a research psychologist. But if I'm wrong, please point me to your research publications so I can read about conservative kids with religious compassion vs. liberal kids with collectivist leanings posing as empathy.

raw data

I have questions about the raw data in this study, too. When I was an undergraduate student, I was a Democrat. After I graduated and got out into the real world, I switched to Republican. I expect that vast majority of college students are liberals, if not outright Democrats, as I was. I wonder why the people who conducted this study used only students and not a variety of people who represent society at large, especially if political values mattered in the study. It seems that the results would be skewed using only undergraduate students.

Really, Ray?

I laugh out loud almost every time...

Hmm, I'm the opposite of Rosalind

I have gone farther and farther to the left as I grow older, and it's all based on my real-world experiences.

I think it depends which part of the real world one lives in. If one's "real world" is limited to the business world and affluent suburbs, then I see how that experience could make one more conservative.

However, my "real world" consisted of being an impoverished graduate student, living overseas, working a set of part-time jobs to make ends meet during the Reagan recession, teaching on the college level and seeing firsthand how uninformed (and sometimes willfully ignorant) the typical business major is, starting my own free-lance business, reading voraciously, and knowing many, many people who have been abused by our economic system.

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying something like, "If you are not liberal when you're young, then you have no heart, but if you're liberal when you're old, then you have no mind." However, he joined Britain's Conservative Party at age 15 and the Liberal Party at age 35, so his own life suggests that this is another of those fabricated quotations that pundits of all persuasions like to sprinkle through their writings.