Political beliefs could affect Democrats’ ability to empathize with Republicans and vice versa, according to a study published last month in Psychological Science.
For the study, researchers from the University of Michigan interviewed 261 students to test the hypothesis that political affiliations would influence the level of empathy participants expressed for another person.
The students—who were told they were participating in research on reading comprehension—were given a story about a hiker lost in a cold climate without adequate food, water, or clothing. The hiker was described as either a Democrat or Republican.
When researchers asked students standing outside in sub-zero temperatures whether they thought the hiker suffered most from hunger, thirst, or cold, 94% of those who self-identified as “similar” to the hiker in terms of political views chose cold, compared to only 57% of students asked the same question inside a heated building. Students who disagreed with the hiker’s political affiliation, though, chose cold in equal numbers regardless of their own physical state.
According to the study’s authors, “These consequences suggest a surprising limitation in our capacity to empathize with people we disagree with or differ from…Firsthand painful experiences apparently do not translate into appreciating similar pain felt by dissimilar others.” Research does suggest, however, that simple exercises such as spending time together in a neutral setting could help increase empathy between groups (Szalavitz, “Healthland,” Time, 4/4).