Can Empathic Concern Actually Increase Political Polarization?

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Imagine you’re walking home late at night and you see a poor, defenseless man being being bullied and called horrible names. Things start to escalate, and the crowd starts pushing him around, knocking off his hat and screaming at him more loudly. The man looks scared and calls out to you for help. Think about how you feel.

Now imagine that as you get closer, you see a MAGA hat on the ground lying right next to the guy. It’s clear that the crowd had thrown his hat on the ground as they continue to taunt him and make fun of him for being a Trump supporter. Does that change how you feel?

Partisan politics in the US is increasingly becoming a matter of “us” versus “them.” While the issues themselves haven’t necessarily become more polarized, our identities have become more tied to our politics. This has resulted in “a nation that agrees on many things but is bitterly divided nonetheless.”

One recent survey found that among those who are highly engaged in politics, 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are “afraid” of the other party, and a near majority of Democrats and Republicans report being angry with the opposing party and see the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being.

Obama has proposed that a major source of this political conflict is an “empathy gap”. But what if the reality is far more complex, and empathy in certain circumstances is actually the problem?

Empathy Gone Awry

While empathy consists of multiple overlapping processes, perhaps the facet most closely related to everyday conceptions of empathy is empathic concern. In the psychological literature, empathic concern refers to the tendency to experience sympathy or compassion for another person who is in distress. The empathic concern scale includes items such as “I often have tender concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.”

While empathic concern is often assumed to be a universal good, there are many cases in which empathy does not live up to its promise. Even those who score high on psychological tests of empathy aren’t always empathic.* After all, empathy is hard work. As a result, people often choose to avoid empathy, viewing it as just not worth the effort.

One important factor is the nature of the relationship with another person. Research shows that the suffering of a perceived member of an outgroup dampens the empathic response compared to empathic concern for an ingroup member’s suffering.

Consider a study in which soccer fans witnessed a fan of their favorite team (ingroup member) or a rival team (outgroup member) experience pain. Participants were then able to choose to help the fan by enduring physical pain themselves to reduce the other’s pain. People reported greater empathic concern for another’s pain and were more willing to personally endure pain to reduce another’s pain when that person was an ingroup member rather than an outgroup member.

Additionally, helping the ingroup member was predicted by activation of the anterior insula area of the brain whereas not helping the outgroup member was associated with activation of the nucleus accumbens area of the brain. The researchers conclude that empathy-related insula activation can motivate costly helping, whereas an antagonistic signal in the nucleus accumbens reduces the urge to help another person in need.

Empathic Concern and Political Polarization

What about within the realm of politics? Are we all just treating politics as though it were one big sports game? In this extremely partisan climite, it certainly seems so. As political psychologist Lilliana Mason put it, “a partisan behaves more like a sports fan than like a banker choosing an investment. Partisans feel emotionally connected to the welfare of the party; they prefer to spend time with other members of the party; and when the party is threatened, they become angry and work to help conquer the threat, even if they disagree with some of the issue positions taken by the party.”

In a new paper, political psychologist Elizabeth Simas and her colleagues get to the bottom of this contentious issue. Across two studies, they demonstrated that the experience of empathic concern is biased toward one’s group and can actually exacerbate political polarization.

In one study based on surveys taken from a nationally representative sample, they found that as empathic concern increases, individuals are more likely to be biased toward their own party and are more likely to show increased hostility toward the outgroup. The effect was particularly pronounced among partisans and was much weaker among “leaners” and independents.**

In another study, people were randomly assigned to receive one of two versions of a short article describing a recent protest on a college campus. In both versions, campus police had to shut down a group of partisan students who were protesting a speech to be given by a person known for making inflammatory comments about that party. In both versions, a bystander who was attempting to hear the speech was struck by a protestor. And in both versions, the protestors succeeded in getting the speech canceled. The researchers only varied the partisan implications. In one condition, the speaker criticized Democrats and was protested by the College Democrats and in the other condition, the speaker criticized Republicans and was protested by the College Republicans.

They found that those at the higher end of empathic concern were significantly more likely to want to stop the speech when the speaker was from the opposite party. Those at the higher end of empathic concern were even more likely to show schadenfreude for the injured student when the speaker was from the opposite party, being more likely to find it funny and amusing that the student was injured. So much for empathic concern!

The researchers conclude: “the evidence we present implies that the real-world effects of empathy are not as positive as they are often assumed to be.”

What’s the Solution?

It might be tempting to look at these studies and conclude that the problem is with empathy itself. We should all just become Spocks and rationally compute the utilitarian value of political policies regardless of political party or the suffering of any particular group of individuals. While I’m sure there will be those who are all for that alternative, I would argue that this would be a very misguided conclusion. After all, I’ve written before how it’s our antagonism with each other— not our empathy– that is ripping America (and the world) apart. The story is definitely more complex.

For one, Elizabeth Simas and colleagues did find a big upside to empathic concern: Whereas empathic concern increased dislike of the outparty, it increased comfort with outparty contact. Those high in empathic concern were less likely to be upset by the prospect of having a family member or neighbor who belongs to the opposite party. Therefore, empathic concern does have an approach-oriented aspect to it that encourages contact with outparty members, even if the primarily goal of that contact is to alter behavior that is seen as harmful to one’s ingroup.

Second, despite developmental psychologist Paul Bloom’s argument that “rational compassion” is better than empathy, the researchers found no evidence that perspective-taking– a more rational dimension of empathy– reduced fundamental aspects of polarization, such as outgroup hostility. Even when excluding controls for empathic concern and other aspects of empathy, perspective-taking did not significantly reduce partisan bias. Therefore, while Paul Bloom is quite right to point out the ways in which empathy can backfire, it seems that the solution here isn’t as simple as removing empathic concern from the equation.

In my view, I think it’s important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. All else equal, scoring high in dispositional empathic concern is a good thing. Research shows that citizens higher in empathic concern are more motivated to participate in the political process in order to reduce harm. Those high in empathic concern are also more likely to be attracted to the more prosocial aspects of running for and holding political office.

I think the findings of Simas and her colleagues are a reflection of the particular political landscape which we find ourselves in. With the rise of Trump exacerbating long-standing hostilities, people are finding the need to hitch their entire existence on a political identity more so than ever, and are getting stuck in their online echo chambers to a degree perhaps unprecedented in American history.

Therefore, in our current political climate, in which we have so much more shared experiences with ingroup members than outgroup members, it may indeed be possible that those predisposed toward empathic responding are more likely to have hostility toward their partisan “opponents” and may even enjoy their suffering. As empathy researcher Jamil Zaki has shown, empathy is very contextual, and is affected strongly by motivation. Particularly when resources are limited or intergroup conflict is featured so predominantly on news outlets, empathy can be costly.

What we need is a stronger motivation for outgroup empathic care. The best way for that to happen, in my view, is not by decreasing one’s general disposition toward caring for the suffering of others, but by increasing one’s contact with members of the outgroup and focusing on common experiences and concerns that we all share. The good news is that those with higher levels of empathic concern are more likely to to be comfortable with contact with members of the opposite party.

But that’s only a start. Simply reporting that one is high in empathic concern– either through a psychological test or on social media– is simply not enough; especially when we are ideologically blinded to see the suffering of those whose political views are different than ours. The only way out of this mess is to not treat political affiliation as a zero-sum game. That requires seeking out stories of suffering from as many different walks of life as possible.

I remain optimistic that we can get past this, but only if we can broaden our spotlight of empathic concern to extend to as many members of the human race as humanly possible.

* Vice-versa, those who score low on psychological tests of empathic empathy aren’t always callous. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and it does seem that if you look really closely at the lives of those who we often treat as “monsters” or “evil”, you see that they actually did show quite a bit of empathy toward members of their perceived ingroup (albeit in some cases that ingroup may have been indeed quite a small circle).

** Even though there was a positive relationship between empathic concern and liberalism, they found no evidence of an interaction between empathic concern and partisan identity. Interestingly, while empathic concern was correlated with the more general personality traits of agreeableness and openness to experience, none of their conclusions changed after controlling for those broader dimensions of personality.

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