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Politics vs. Empathy

Politics makes us stupid. This is one of my recurring themes. This is the principal reason I refuse to be a partisan or ideological team player. People call me libertarian but I don’t in part because I’m not one, but mostly because I suspect that accepting any such label dings my IQ about 15 points. It turns out politics not only makes us stupid. It also makes us callous. Here’s the abstract of “More Than Skin Deep: Visceral States Are Not Projected Onto Dissimilar Others” by Ed O’Brien and Phoebe C. Ellsworth of the University of Michigan [via :]

What people feel shapes their perceptions of others. In the studies reported here, we examined the assimilative influence of visceral states on social judgment. Replicating prior research, we found that participants who were outside during winter overestimated the extent to which other people were bothered by cold (Study 1), and participants who ate salty snacks without water thought other people were overly bothered by thirst (Study 2). However, in both studies, this effect evaporated when participants believed that the other people under consideration held opposing political views from their own. Participants who judged these dissimilar others were unaffected by their own strong visceral-drive states, a finding that highlights the power of dissimilarity in social judgment. Dissimilarity may thus represent a boundary condition for embodied cognition and inhibit an empathic understanding of shared out-group pain. Our findings reveal the need for a better understanding of how people’s internal experiences influence their perceptions of the feelings and experiences of those who may hold different values from their own.

Got that? We overestimate the extent to which others feel what we’re feeling, unless they’re on another team.

The authors call the tendency to generalize our own feelings “egocentric projection.” What’s the point of it?

[T]he social projection of visceral feelings may derive from the tendency to imagine another person’s situation by first imagining oneself in the same situation (Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2003); in other words, social projection of visceral feelings may reflect a more general projection of similarity.

If this rationale is correct, it suggests that people may not project visceral states onto others who are clearly different from themselves.

Makes sense, right? If we want to know how others are feeling, one quick and dirty trick is just to imagine ourselves in their shoes, see how we feel, and then attribute those feelings to others. But we’re not perfect at abstracting away from the atypical particularities of own present internal states. So, if we happen to be a little cold or thirsty, we’ll project our chill or thirstiness into our little internal simulation of others. But not if others have, as in this study, different politics. What does politics have to do with thirst or chill. Nothing at all. That we are so quick to find our own feelings irrelevant to the understanding of people with different politics, just think how intuitively alien people who eat strange food and speak other languages much seem.

On one hand, the lack of egocentric projection onto out-group members eliminates errors of overprojection. Thirsty liberals will overestimate the thirstiness of other liberals, but not of conservatives. So a sense of difference can eliminate a certain common bias. On the other hand, this trivial gain in objectivity seems to be due to a sense that out-groupers are so dissimilar that it’s not worth putting ourselves into their shoes, which is a harrowing thought.

Now, O’Brien and Ellsworth’s study was designed to pick up the absence of projection, which does suggests a certain failure of empathy. But there is nothing in the study to suggest that this necessarily leads us to make other errors about what outgroupers feel. We’d need to better understand the positive value of egocentric projection of visceral states in order to fully grasp the implications of our tendency not to project our feelings into outgroupers. O’Brien and Ellsworth do take a stab at some practical implications:

Our research … suggests that people may be uninfluenced by their own pain when gauging pain felt by dissimilar others. Thus, if lawmakers first test interrogation practices (as suggested by Nordgren et al., 2011), they may not project the experience onto those for whom it is designed (e.g., suspected terrorists), and this could lead to an unintended acceptance of torture. Similarly, homeless populations often struggle with poor nutrition and intemperate weather; personally feeling hungry and cold may be insufficient to sensitize people who have no long-term worries about food and shelter to the plight of this highly stigmatized out-group (Harris & Fiske, 2006). These consequences suggest a surprising limitation in people’s capacity to empathize with others with whom they disagree or differ from. Perceptions of dissimilar others are apparently uninformed by visceral feelings.

Maybe strapping men into pregnancy bellies doesn’t help?!

The limits of empathetic projection are interesting and suggestive, but I’d like to know more about the limits of out-group empathetic reception. No doubt there is work on this, and that it is even more depressing. If, say, white people were capable of fully empathizing with young black men, the American gulag system could not exist. It appears to be extremely difficult to keep in our tiny tribal monkey minds, but do try: they are not really so different. Better: there is no they, only us. Why are we so prone to violence? Why do we cross borders illegally? Why do we hate us?

Photo credit: WBEN-TV on Flickr


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