People with more empathy might be sharpening divisions

You might think that a little more empathy would help to heal the divisions in US politics, but it could actually worsen the situation by increasing polarisation.

A recent survey found that those with a disposition for “empathic concern”, one of several traits that make up general empathy, seem to be more politically polarised. They hold a more favourable opinion of their own preferred party, whether Republican or Democrat, along with a more unfavourable opinion of the opposing one.

The team then surveyed 1200 students, randomly splitting them into two groups. Each participant was shown a different version of an article about a protest on a university campus. The article told the story of a public event with either a Democrat or a Republican speaker, which is halted by protests from the other side. When the police try to move in, a bystander is struck by a protester.

In a series of questions afterwards, students with low empathic concern took the same view on whether the speech should have been stopped, irrespective of the speaker’s party. Students who were more empathic, however, were happier to censor speakers they disagreed with. They did care more overall about the bystander’s welfare, but that concern showed a partisan bias too, being less sympathetic if the bystander wanted to hear a speaker from the side the student disagreed with.

It seems that empathy is a complex thing, a bit like an emotional contagion to a certain degree.  “I’m sharing the pain with somebody I connect with, so I don’t like the cause and the effect of the pain”. 

Moral emotions evolved to help us navigate a world where tribal solidarity likely offered an advantage in survival. Thus, it makes good sense that empathy might be in-group oriented.     (Journal reference: American Political Science ReviewDOI: 10.1017/S0003055419000534.   Leo Benedic,  New  Scientist , edited entry).

My comment: Both in the US and the UK politics is painfully tribal.  This tribalism has long-ago roots and is not going to abate or disappear anytime soon.  Watching it I wonder at the fact that in my twenties I wanted to become a politician (a notional gasp from Epicurus!).  I would have made a terrible politician. Concern about the best interests of the country is no longer in vogue.

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