Empathy doesn't extend across the political aisle

When we try to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, we usually go all the way, assuming that they feel the same way we do. But a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that we have limits: we don't extend this projection to people who have different political views, even under extreme circumstances.

The researchers chose to examine political differences because of the big divide perceived between on opposing sides, as shown by earlier research. We can look beyond someone having a different gender or being from a different country, but if you're a Democrat and someone else is a Republican, that person seems extremely different. "Political values are emotionally charged. People get really fired up," says Ed O'Brien of the University of Michigan, who cowrote the study with Phoebe C. Ellsworth.

They were actually interested in the question of how we project visceral states. These are strong internal states that we want badly to change. For example, in one study, the researchers approached people who were waiting for a bus in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the winter. These people, it can be safely assumed, were cold.

Usually, visceral states are so overwhelming that people project them onto others: If I'm cold, you must be cold too. But the researchers set out to test just how far this effect extends.

Each person was given a short story to read. The story was about a person who was either a left-wing, pro-gay rights or a Republican proponent of traditional marriage, who goes hiking in winter but gets lost with no food, water, or extra clothes. After reading the story, they were asked whether the , thirst, or cold was most unpleasant for the hiker and what the hiker most regretted not packing. They were also asked how hungry, thirsty, and cold the hiker felt, and what their own were. The researchers gave the same task to people who were warm and comfortable in the nearby library.

People who had the same politics as the fictional hiker judged the hiker to be cold like them, as previous research predicts. But if the hiker had different politics, subjects weren't affected by their strong feelings; cold outdoor participants didn't think the dissimilar hiker was any colder than did warm indoor participants. Another experiment found something similar when people were fed salty snacks in the lab; they read the same story and were less likely to think a hiker of the opposing party was thirsty like them.

This shows that the tendency to project your feelings onto others does not extend to people who are very different from you, even when the feelings otherwise overwhelm your judgments. This might reveal a surprising limit to our ability to empathize with people we differ from or disagree with. For example, other research has shown that people are less likely to endorse torture after they're given a brief burst of pain. But these results suggest that people might feel less opposed to torture if it's being used on people very different from themselves. Similarly, feeling hungry or cold might not be enough to make people appreciate the plight of the homeless, if they perceive the homeless as very different from themselves. "Even if you're feeling shared pain, you may not let that connection affect your opinions of people are very, very different from you," O'Brien says.

Related Stories

Crossing the line: What constitutes torture?

Apr 13, 2011

Torture. The United Nations defines it as the “infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” But how severe is severe? That judgment determines whether or not the law classifies an interrogation practice ...

Cold and lonely: Does social exclusion literally feel cold?

Sep 15, 2008

When we hear somebody described as "frosty" or "cold", we automatically picture a person who is unfriendly and antisocial. There are numerous examples in our daily language of metaphors which make a connection between cold ...

Moral dilemma: Would you kill 1 person to save 5?

Dec 01, 2011

Imagine a runaway boxcar heading toward five people who can't escape its path. Now imagine you had the power to reroute the boxcar onto different tracks with only one person along that route.

Recommended for you

Despite risks, benzodiazepine use highest in older people

7 hours ago

Prescription use of benzodiazepines—a widely used class of sedative and anti-anxiety medications—increases steadily with age, despite the known risks for older people, according to a comprehensive analysis of benzodiazepine ...

Why some antidepressants may initially worsen symptoms

11 hours ago

New research helps explain a paradoxical effect of certain antidepressants—that they may actually worsen symptoms before helping patients feel better. The findings, highlighted in a paper publishing online December 17 in ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

edwin_rutsch
not rated yet Apr 03, 2012
May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
CultureOfEmpathy.com

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.