Political Differences Negate Your Sense of Empathy
In listening to the things that pundits on both right and left say about the other side, it's hard to believe that they have a sense of empathy at all. To a die-hard Democrat or Republican, members of the opposing party often seem like a completely different species. A new study confirms this suspicion, showing that we have a difficult time putting ourselves in the shoes of others if they hold different political beliefs from our own.
One of the most straightforward manifestations of empathy is how we interpret the visceral feelings of others, such as assuming that, if you are cold, the other people around you are also cold. Researchers had volunteers at a cold bus stop and in a warm library both read a short story. The story featured either a left-wing, pro-gay-rights Democrat or a right-wing Republican who was a proponent of traditional marriage. In the story, this person went hiking in winter, but gets lost with no food, water, or extra clothes. The study participants were asked what the hiker most regretted not packing; how hungry, thirsty, and cold the hiker felt; which feeling was most unpleasant to him; and, finally, what the participant's political views were.
The researchers found that people who shared political beliefs with the fictional hiker judged him to be cold, just as they were, and the study participants at the cold bus stop judged the hiker to be even colder than the other group in the warm library (that is, they empathized with his coldness). If their politics differed, however, cold outdoor participants didn't think the dissimilar hiker was any colder than did warm indoor participants. Thus, they judged that our tendency to project our feelings onto others in similar circumstances seems not to extend to people who are very different.
Could our lack of empathy for the other "tribe" be an evolutionary relic? Popular political discourse has certainly made it seem as if the left and right are warring tribal factions. This gap in understanding could explain why bipartisan solutions so rarely come to fruition, despite the fact that we all say that's what we want to see.
Previously: The Neurology of Conflict
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