Democrats & Republicans Don't Care Much About Each Other's Physical Distress

By Sarah Zhang | April 10, 2012 11:39 am

spacing is important

As we descend into another election year, it would be nice if we could remember that people across the political divide are, er, people too. Unfortunately, that’s harder than it sounds, according to a new study in Psychological Science. Democrats and Republicans both are less likely to empathize with people from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Psychologists know that empathy is often dependent on similarity. It’s easier, for example, to empathize with Jack London’s characters when you’re reading about Yukon explorers at a snowy bus stop than on the beach in Cancun. The researchers devised a clever experiment where students at a Michigan bus stop in January were asked to do a “reading comprehension” test. The short story they read, about a hiker who gets lost without clothes, food, or water, also inserted some clues to the hiker’s political affiliations.

In the follow-up test, questions about story details were mixed in with questions probing how the reader reacted to the hiker being cold. Students with political views similar to the hiker’s rated the character as feeling colder than students with opposite political views (7.8 versus 5.5 out of 10). When participant and hiker shared political beliefs, 94% of students at the freezing bus stop said that the cold was worse than hunger or thirst for the hiker. When the same freezing students had opposing political beliefs, that number fell to 55%. The researchers also surveyed students sitting cozy in a warm library, and they found that political belief had no effect on how participants ranked coldness for the hiker.

There are two different things going on here. When we share “visceral states”—in this case coldness—we feel another person’s suffering from that visceral state more acutely than others. That’s why the cold students were more concerned with coldness for the hiker. However, if that same cold student disagreed with the hiker’s political views, he no longer empathized with the hiker’s coldness. The empathy bump from “shared” coldness disappeared.

The psychologists repeated this experiment with thirsty students instead of cold ones—they first fed them salty snacks—and saw the same empathy bump again disappear with opposing political views. They interpret these data as evidence that people have trouble projecting their own basic human needs to outgroups. For example, this may explain why it can be easy to neglect homeless people who are suffering from cold and hunger.

Since the study was conducted among college students at University of Michigan, one limitation of the research is that there were relatively few conservatives; in the bus stop study, the total number of Democrats outnumbered Republicans 78 to 39. Why college campuses have that political tilt is a question for another study.

[via TIME]

Election image via Shutterstock/ HuHu

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
  • Oldtaku

    It’s interesting that they suggest this is just lack of empathy and not active Schadenfreude. That’s charitable, but I regularly see Democrats actively cackle over Republican misfortunes and vice versa.

  • Chris

    Why college campuses have that political tilt is a question for another study.

    Well it does depend on the college. If you go to a religious college, I’m sure you’d find the situation reversed.

  • JMW

    @2…and I think it also depends on which faculty you plumb for students. Economics and Law faculties probably have a higher proportion of conservative students.

  • John Lerch

    They also didn’t mention how extreme the political views of the fictional character were. One might empathize with someone at about the 1 SD away from the middle (or at least the perceived middle); but not empathize with Ted Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Also there is a tendency in America to mis-think that conservatives are more anti-state than liberals; whereas the reality is that American conservatives on average score much higher on a Statist vs “Libertarian” scale than liberals. So e.g. I feel much more empathy for a libertarian conservative such as M Friedman than for Ron Santorum or N Gingrich or even a moderate such as M Romney (even though I think Friedman is wrong in worse ways than a typical conservative). Also since their anti-state rhetoric is so hypocritical I completely second Oldtaku’s suggestion of Schadenfreude.
    Bottom line: they may not have accounted for hypocrisy in the political convictions of their fictional protagonist.

  • odin

    78 to 39? Why not just say 2 to 1?

  • Pippa

    “Why college campuses have that political tilt is a question for another study.”
    It has been said that anyone who is not more liberal as a young (person) and more conservative as an older adult is a fool! I would not expect to find many fools at that University.

  • Wilson

    A closer version of the quote is “If you are not a socialist in your youth, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative in your maturity, you have no brain!”

  • stargene

    I am beginning to suspect an incongruity when we equate, say, liberals
    with democrats (and possibly conservatives with republicans). When
    on a newsgroup I wrote of recent studies giving some evidence for
    anatomical differences between self-professed liberals and conservatives,
    with detail and references, I postulated that any genetic basis for this
    could reflect our long term species survival requiring both poles of
    behavior, along with polarities along many other behavioral axes.
    Ie: it’s easy to imagine species survival events requiring conservative
    modes and other events requiring liberal modes of thought… retaining
    both is a very good survival strategy. However, when my post arrived,
    it received only hostile flaming and rants against conservatives, from
    people on what I presume is the left. It was as though no one
    had really taken the whole tenor of the studies to heart as a way of
    bringing people back together, crossing the great divides. I am a
    lifelong democrat (often disappointed) and a liberal. But I am not a
    liberal because I am a democrat. I am a liberal because I am a liberal.
    They really involve different things. I also wonder at times if people
    on the left and the right are, in crucial ways, simply twisted reflections
    of one another… both poles are noted for polar thinking; black and
    white; either right or wrong. Not a healthy combo. My father styled
    himself as a radical red, as were many of his friends. But even
    as a kid, I noticed in his ‘preachings’ and anecdotes, a tinge of the
    same intolerance for ‘the other’ and ‘differences of opinion’ and self-
    righteousness that I saw on the far right. For what it’s worth.

  • Wilson

    Think of the political spectrum as a clockface.

    At 6 you have moderates at 9 and 3 you have left and right, and their positions harden all the way up to 12, where communism and fascism meet seemlessly. It’s an uniterrupted circle.

  • Margaret Bartley

    I wonder why it matters whether the condition being asked about is shared by both people? Why would the fact that I share discomfort with my political opponent change my empathy, whereas if I am not in that condition, I do have empathy? The people in the warm library were as likely to empathize with the character who opposed their political beliefs as with the character who shared their beliefs. Ditto with the thirsty. This story lacked some important details – I hate that.

    I wonder if the reason is becuase the empathy level was low for conditions that were not shared, no matter what the political correlations were? Maybe empathy is low on any condition that the viewer doesn’t share? That would explain the abilty to shrug off the discomfort we might feel when viewing obviously sick people, who look like meth addicts or alcoholics, when we see them begging on the streets? Because we don’t share that condition?

  • floodmouse

    Lack of empathy is always disturbing. I once overheard some college students talking about why they liked Michigan State University (Spartans) better than University of Michigan (Wolverines). They said it was because at Michigan State University, the campus is all self-enclosed parkland and you don’t have to walk past homeless people on your way to class. On the other hand, I once saw a self-proclaimed conservative republican middle-aged white mail suburban home owner offer a cold drink to a PIRGIM liberal democratic environmental door-to-door propagandist on a hot day in summer. When I vote, if I have a choice, I try to vote for people who show empathy for their constituents, not just along straight party politic lines.

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