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More evidence of how politics gets in the way of empathy

Political differences appear to override even our strong innate human desire to project our visceral feelings onto those around us.

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.

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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?