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Empathy and the Liberal-Conservative Political Divide in the U.S.

Updated: Jan 6

Stephen G. Morris*a[a] Department of Philosophy, College of Staten Island (CUNY), Staten Island, NY, USA.

Abstract When future historians look back upon the current political climate in the U.S., it is likely that they will view the severe state of political polarization between liberals and conservatives as being one of its defining characteristics. While some have suggested that a difference in general levels of empathy among liberals and conservatives could be playing a role in shaping their differing political attitudes, psychologist Paul Bloom has forcefully argued against any such difference in his book “Against Empathy”. In this commentary I set out to counter Bloom’s claim that there is no significant relationship between the capacity to experience empathy and political ideology. To this end, I discuss how a growing collection of empirical research indicates that an individual’s propensity to experience empathy correlates with one’s general political attitudes (including party affiliation) as well as with which specific policy positions one takes. More specifically, this research suggests that a strong connection exists between empathy and liberal political views. In light of this research, I suggest that empathy can help account for the differences in political attitudes among liberals and conservatives in the U.S. and may even help explain why such attitudes have become increasingly polarized. The analysis provided in this essay aims to further our understanding of how personality traits can be used to predict voter attitudes in the U.S. and beyond.

What about Empathy?

Empathy is generally understood as the capacity to share in the experiences or emotions that one apprehends in others. Psychologist Paul Bloom’s (2016) book Against Empathy is notable for going against many of the prevailing attitudes that people (including both academics and laypersons) have with regard to empathy.

First and foremost, Bloom’s main focus is to refute the widely accepted view that empathy exerts an overall positive influence on human affairs. Citing various empirical work that exposes some of the negative aspects of empathy, Bloom argues that we would be better off were we to eliminate, or at least minimize, the influence that empathy has over our lives. In the course of building his case against empathy, Bloom turns to the issue of politics and rejects the general consensus view once more, this time with regard to the widely accepted notion that empathy bears a close relationship with liberal political views.

While Bloom (2016) admits that “there is some association between empathy and [liberal] politics, along the directions that you’d expect,” he claims that “the association is not as strong as people believe it is” (p. 114). He maintains that “Being against empathy won’t tell you what to think about gun control, taxation, health care, and the like; it won’t tell you who to vote for, or what your general political philosophy should be like” (Ibid.). In defending this position, he argues that liberals and conservatives are different not in terms of their general levels of empathy, but rather in terms of whom they empathize with. While liberals tend to empathize with certain groups like immigrants, minority victims of police violence, and pregnant women considering whether to have an abortion, conservatives happen to empathize more with individuals like business owners, police officers, and unborn fetuses (2016, p. 122).

According to Bloom, the disconnect between empathy and liberal policies is best illustrated by how liberals and conservatives differ with regard to climate change. Although liberals are in favor of taking significant steps to counter climate change, Bloom claims that the basic conservative stance against doing so is actually more motivated by empathy than the liberal position. His view is that while the conservative view is driven by a tangible concern for U.S. workers who may lose their jobs if we combat climate change by, for instance, reducing our usage of fossil fuels, the liberal position is based instead on a “pale statistical abstraction” involving hypothetical populations in the future (2016, p. 126). In rejecting the notion that empathy can help explain the differences between liberals and conservatives, Bloom also points out that there are many policies that liberals and libertarians—who studies suggest are the least empathetic political group—agree on, such as the legalization of recreational drugs and gay marriage.

In this essay, I aim to refute Bloom’s arguments denying a strong connection between empathy and liberal political views by citing a growing collection of empirical research conducted on people’s political views which suggests that an individual’s propensity to experience empathy correlates with one’s general political attitudes (including party affiliation) as well as with which specific policy positions one takes.

In light of this research, I argue that empathy might help to explain the differences in political attitudes among liberals and conservatives as well as why politics in the U.S. has become increasingly polarized. It is worth noting from the onset that I will not explore whether empathy is a good thing insofar as public policy is concerned, nor will I be discussing the relative merits and shortcomings of liberal and conservative political perspectives. Furthermore, I will not even address whether political polarization is a problem that ought to be mitigated. In the present essay my aim will be limited to discussing how empirical evidence lends support to the following claims:

  1. Empathy is positively correlated to liberalism;

  2. This correlation is most likely due to empathy exerting a causal influence on people’s political attitudes;

  3. The causal impact that empathy appears to have on political attitudes can go some of the way towards explaining the extreme polarization we currently find in the U.S.

I will briefly speak to these claims and how my treatment of them constitutes a novel contribution to the existing literature on empathy and political attitudes. Though a good amount of research has been conducted on the first claim (whether empathy is correlated to liberal political views), this research has frequently generated ambiguous results that have made it difficult to reach any firm conclusions.

Part of my aim in this commentary is to point to how a detailed analysis of the relevant empirical studies can explain away the apparent ambiguities and allow us to conclude that a positive correlation does, in fact, hold between empathy and liberal attitudes. Furthermore, though some studies have built compelling cases indicating that liberals in the U.S. have higher general levels of empathy than conservatives (e.g., Hasson, Tamir, Brahms, Cohrs, & Halperin, 2018), my analysis goes beyond them in pointing to how empathy is correlated to specific liberal policy preferences as well. Since very little research has addressed whether a causal relationship between empathy and political views might explain the alleged correlation that holds among them (the second of these claims), my investigation into this subject is another way that the present essay builds on the existing literature.

Finally, this commentary offers the first attempt to explain the growing political divide in the U.S. as stemming partly from a growing disparity in general empathy among that country’s liberal and conservative voters (the third and final claim). By addressing these three claims, the analysis provided in this commentary aims to clarify the relationship between empathy and political ideology and, in doing so, holds promise for furthering our understanding of how personality traits can be used to predict voter attitudes and behavior in the U.S. and beyond.

As a point of clarification, I will not be suggesting that empathy is either the only or the primary predictor of people’s political attitudes, nor that it is the only or primary factor behind increasing political polarization in the U.S. My intention is only to point to research indicating that differing empathy levels seem to provide some explanation for people’s political attitudes and may serve as one of the factors contributing to the growing political divide in the U.S.

Liberalism Versus Conservativism

When future historians look back upon the current political climate in the U.S., it is likely that they will view the severe state of political polarization between liberals and conservatives (who generally align themselves with the Democratic and Republican parties respectively) as being one of its defining characteristics. Acknowledging this polarization of political attitudes, a report by the Pew Research Center (2014) stated that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades”.

An analysis conducted by political scientists Christopher Hare and Keith Poole goes even further, concluding that “Polarization of the Democratic and Republican Parties is higher than at any time since the end of the Civil War” (2014, p. 411). It is likely that such ideological divisions have only deepened as of 2020. While numerous explanations have been offered to account for this growing divide in U.S. politics—which include an increasingly partisan mass media (Levendusky, 2013), an upsurge of money into politics (La Raja & Schaffner, 2015), gerrymandering (Carson, Crespin, Finocchiaro, & Rohde, 2007; Theriault, 2008), unprecedented inequality (Voorheis, McCarty, & Shor, 2015), differences in education (Tuschman, 2013), and even the increasing tendency of U.S. citizens to marry politically like-minded individuals (Iyengar, Konitzer, & Tedin, 2018)—these explanations have overlooked a deeper psychological element, namely empathy, that may be playing a significant role in driving the political rift between liberals and conservatives.

Before delving into how empathy relates to the ideological differences between liberals and conservatives in the U.S., I will briefly discuss the distinction between liberalism and conservatism as well as the basic nature of empathy. In the literature comparing liberalism versus conservatism, an emphasis is often placed on understanding how particular personality variables can predict political preferences.

Surveying the contemporary literature on the general personality traits of liberals (i.e., progressives or left-wingers) and conservatives (i.e., right-wingers) reveals a general consensus that liberals tend to be more open to social change, less religious, more egalitarian, less authoritarian, less punitive, more tolerant of out-groups, less concerned with in-group unity, and look less favorably upon hierarchical social structures than conservatives (Alford, Funk, & Hibbing, 2005; Feldman & Johnston, 2014; Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2009; Schwartz, 1992).

Furthermore, research indicates that these differences in personality variables can help account for the consistent divergence we observe among liberals and conservatives with respect to policy preference. In terms of economic policies, the more egalitarian and less hierarchical bent of liberals tends to make them look much more favorably upon policies aimed at eliminating wealth inequality (e.g., progressive taxation) and providing for the poor (e.g., welfare programs), as well as those seeking to provide all citizens with free access to healthcare and higher education. Another common difference between liberals and conservatives is that while the latter generally desire to uphold traditional social arrangements—which is exhibited by conservatives’ less positive attitudes towards the legalization of gay marriage and recreational drug use—the former are generally in favor of promoting social change, especially where they view such changes as being necessary for promoting the welfare of groups they believe have been subject to discrimination. Hence, liberals are much more favorable in their attitudes towards affirmative action, immigration, and laws aimed at protecting the LGBTQ community.

Finally, conservatives tend to place more of an emphasis on protecting citizens from aggression by either fellow citizens or foreigners. This helps explain why conservatives tend to have more favorable attitudes towards military spending and harsher punishment of convicted criminals than liberals. While this discussion of the distinction between liberals and conservatives is admittedly cursory, this snapshot of these two political groups in the U.S. suffices for the purposes of this essay.

The Components of Empathy

  • In a series of articles (2014, 2015), neuroscientist Jean Decety and psychologist Jason M. Cowell describe empathy as being constituted by three distinct, yet related, components:

  1. Affective Sharing which reflects the natural capacity to become affectively aroused by others’ emotions. It occurs when you feel what another is feeling (or what you imagine another is feeling).

  2. Empathic Concern, which corresponds to the motivation of caring for another’s welfare.

  3. Perspective Taking, which is the ability to consciously put oneself into the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is thinking or feeling (2015, p. 4).

While Decety and Cowell identify both affective sharing and empathic concern as being ancient adaptations that we find in non-human animals, they view perspective taking as being a much more recent evolutionary development that is found only in human beings and perhaps a few of the more developed ape species. And though Decety and Cowell assert that “the biological mechanisms underpinning empathic concern are different from those involved from affective sharing,” they believe that these components evolved together and played a pivotal role in both parental care and in-group cooperation, both of which have been important for our species’ survival (see 2015, pp. 6-7). The close relationship between these two components probably accounts for Decety and Cowell’s tendency to use empathy as a label that includes both affective sharing and empathic concern (see for example, 2015, p. 10).

Decety and Cowell’s understanding of empathy corresponds with other conceptions of it in the psychological literature. To illustrate, consider the description of empathy given by Weisz and Zaki (2018) in a recent paper: “empathy is a multicomponent phenomenon comprised of related but distinct sub-processes. These sub-processes include experience sharing (or vicariously feeling others’ emotions) [i.e., affective sharing], mentalizing (explicitly considering others’ thoughts and internal states) [i.e., perspective taking], and empathic concern (positive feelings of compassion and care for others’ welfare)” (p. 67). Preckel, Kanske, and Singer (2018) express a similar description of empathy, stating that “empathy enables the sharing of another’s emotion [i.e., affective sharing] and may result in…compassion, a feeling of warmth and concern for others [i.e., empathic concern]” and “provides cognitive understanding of someone else's thoughts or intentions [i.e., perspective taking]” (p. 1). Other descriptions of empathy in the psychological literature that reflect Decety and Cowell’s conception of it are plentiful.

To begin with affective sharing, it is basically the default definition of “empathy” that we find throughout the literature. In a widely-cited review paper, for instance, social psychologists Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas (2010) define empathy as “the vicarious experience of another's emotions” (p. 351). Empathic concern is commonly identified as being a key component of empathy and has been discussed extensively by the eminent social psychologist C.D. Batson (e.g., Batson, 2009).

Finally, numerous psychologists have recognized perspective-taking (sometimes called “cognitive empathy”) as being the cognitive facet of empathy (Bloom, 2016; Deutsch & Madle, 1975; Dillard & Hunter, 1989). It is also worth mentioning that Mark Davis’s (1980) influential Interpersonal Reactivity Index that is used to measure empathy contained items that measured affective sharing, empathic concern, and perspective taking.

The Correlation Between Empathy and Liberalism

Before I address the empirical case that can be made for the connection between empathy and liberal political attitudes, it is worth noting that the view that such a connection exists has strong intuitive appeal. This view, for example, comports with the disparaging depiction of liberals as “bleeding hearts” whose policy preferences are often driven by a concern for the welfare of disadvantaged groups within a society. Speaking to this common conception, philosopher Jesse Prinz (2011) says: “Conservatives tend to be less empathetic, and they think the needy should pull themselves together and solve some of their own problems rather than looking for handouts” (p. 223).

Despite this common attitude, however, research conducted on the relationship between empathy and ideology has often been ambivalent about whether empathy correlates with liberal attitudes in a straightforward fashion.iv This ambivalence is probably one of the factors that led Bloom to forcefully argue against the idea of a close relationship between empathy and liberal political views in his 2016 book Against Empathy. In what follows I set out to counter those like Bloom, who maintain that the available empirical data fails to provide a robust case for believing that the capacity to feel empathy for others is positively tied to liberal political views. As I intend to show, the bulk of the empirical work on empathy and political attitudes offers strong reasons for rejecting Bloom’s position. Before proceeding to discuss the empirical studies relevant to this matter, however, some discussion of the methods used in these studies is in order, particularly regarding how empathy was measured.

In the studies exploring the connection between empathy and political attitudes that I will discuss, the methods that researchers used for measuring empathy typically involve asking subjects to rate themselves according to the components of empathy (affective sharing, empathic concern, and perspective taking) mentioned earlier. Thus, for instance, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980)—hereafter the IRI—which was used in several of these studies includes questions such as, “I sometimes find it difficult to see things from the 'other guy's' point of view” (perspective taking), “Sometimes I don't feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems” (empathic concern), and “I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel” (affective sharing). The Empathy Assessment Index (hereafter EAI) developed by Lietz et al. (2011) used many of the types of questions found in the IRI—e.g., “When I see someone receive a gift that makes them happy, I feel happy myself” (affective sharing)—to measure participants’ general empathy levels. Other measures of empathy that I cite below—e.g., the Empathy Quotient (EQ) developed by Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004) and the Portrait Values Questionnaire-Revised (PVQ-R) developed by Schwartz et al. (2001)are similar to the foregoing studies in that they either often or exclusively ask questions aimed at measuring the subject’s general empathy levels. In addition to these kinds of tests involving questionnaires, one of the studies I discuss—that of Loewen et al. (2019)—used a measure of empathy called the “Reading the mind in the eyes test” (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, & Jolliffe, 1997), which involves testing the degree to which subjects can accurately determine the emotional state of an individual by just viewing that individual’s eyes.

In terms of the reliability of these different measures, recent work in neuroscience suggests that at least some of them are successful in measuring key components of empathy (