New research published in the journal Political Psychology provides evidence that political partisanship can reverse the expected effects of empathy.
Political partisans with higher levels of empathic ability tend to feel less sympathy towards a suffering person when the situation conflicts with their political predispositions, compared to partisans with lower levels of empathic ability.
“Around the time that the Republicans were trying to revoke the Affordable Care Act, there was a steady stream of stories about people who had voted for Trump but relied on the Affordable Care Act for coverage,” said study authors Maxwell B. Allamong of Texas A&M University and David A. M. Peterson of Iowa State University.
“These were often shared on social media by liberals with a certain amount of animosity towards the people in the stories. This led us to be curious about how people react to this type of coverage,” the researchers continued.
“We also read the papers by Feldman and Huddy on the role of empathy in shaping political attitudes. In their examples, conservatives with higher levels of empathic ability reacted to stories that created sympathy for members of an outgroup by becoming more hostile, which was counter to what many would have expected. We thought that the reactions to Trump voters who depended on the ACA would be a good test of the patterns focusing on liberals.”
In their new study, Allamong and Peterson had 531 participants complete a demographic questionnaire and the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, a measure of cognitive empathy that assesses the ability to infer someone else’s state of mind from looking only at their eyes and surrounding areas.
The participants were then instructed to read a brief story about a 57-year-old mother, Julie, who was concerned about losing her health insurance if the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed. The participants were randomly assigned to read one of three versions of the story: Julie was described either as a Clinton voter, as a Trump voter, or no information was provided about her 2016 vote.
After reading the story, the participants were asked how sympathetic Julie’s case was, how much they cared about Julie’s situation, and if Julie deserved government support for her health care.
The researchers found that Democrats and Independents with greater empathic ability were more sympathetic towards Julie. Republicans with greater empathic ability, in contrast, were less sympathetic towards Julie compared to Republicans with less empathic ability.
“Polarization is tricky and solutions to the negative affect Americans feel to the other party are difficult. Encouraging others to empathize with those that disagree with you politically will not necessarily help mitigate political polarization,” the researchers told PsyPost.
Whether Julie was described as a Clinton or Trump voter also had an impact. Republicans were more sympathetic towards Julie when she was a Trump voter, although the negative relationship between empathic ability and sympathy remained.
“It’s not that people from the other party don’t understand what it is like to feel pain or that they have never been down on their luck, they are simply responding to those signals in a way that is emotionally cost effective and is congruent with their political predispositions,” the researchers wrote in their study.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“The ACA might be an outlier of a policy for this. It was extremely salient and the connections to the two parties was clearer than most public policies. We don’t know if the effects we find are unique to this policy or if we can generalize to more mundane issues,” said Allamong and Peterson
The study, “Screw Those Guys: Polarization, Empathy, and Attitudes About Out‐Partisans“, was published October 27, 2020.