Empathy Is Tearing Us Apart

There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.

Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”

The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.

It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: according to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.

This study is urgently important—though not because it’s a paradigm shifter, shedding radically new light on our predicament. As the authors note, their findings are in many ways consistent with conclusions reached by other scholars in recent years. But the view of empathy that’s emerging from this growing body of work hasn’t much trickled down to the public. And public understanding of it may be critical to shifting America’s political polarization into reverse somewhere between here and the abyss.

Like many past studies, this one gauges people’s level of “empathic concern” by asking them how strongly they agree or disagree with a series of seven statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” If it seems strange that people who identify with this statement might find amusement in someone’s being injured at a protest, maybe putting the paradox in a more extreme context will help.

Imagine these avowedly empathetic people hearing about the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month. There’s no denying that on the day of his death, Baghdadi was in some sense “less fortunate” than they—but do you expect them to have “tender, concerned feelings” for him? And would you be surprised if they reported that, actually, they got a bit of a lift from his demise?
What seems obviously true in the Baghdadi case—that people don’t deploy empathy indiscriminately—turns out to be true in less extreme cases, too, ones that don’t involve terrorist masterminds. Various scholars have found, in various contexts, an “empathy gap” between “in-group” and “out-group.” In one study, soccer fans showed more concern over pain felt by fans of their favorite team than over pain felt by fans of a rival team.

Of course, this new study does more than find meager empathy for the out-group. It finds that high-empathy people view the out-group more unfavorably (relative to their own group) than low-empathy people; and that they may even take more delight in the suffering of some out-group members. Here, too, the Baghdadi case is illuminating.

After all, high-empathy Americans presumably felt more acutely the suffering of the in-group members who were beheaded, on camera, by the out-group that Baghdadi led. And this could translate into more antipathy toward the out-group and its leader. (In President Trump’s colorful ramblings about the special forces raid, he peppered his fond reminiscences of Baghdadi’s death with vivid references to the beheadings, as if trying to make the death feel more gratifying to his audience. Whether consciously or not, he was harnessing the fact that in-group empathy can elevate ill-will toward the out-group.)