“Can Empathic Concern Actually Increase Political Polarization?” – By Scott Barry Kaufman

From Beautiful Minds

Can Empathic Concern Actually Increase Political Polarization?

New research suggests that those who display the most concern for others are also the most socially polarized

By Scott Barry Kaufman on November 6, 2019


One recent survey found that among those who are highly engaged in politics, 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are “afraid” of the other party, and a near majority of Democrats and Republicans report being angry with the opposing party and see the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being.

Obama has proposed that a major source of this political conflict is an “empathy gap”. But what if the reality is far more complex, and empathy in certain circumstances is actually the problem?


While empathic concern is often assumed to be a universal good, there are many cases in which empathy does not live up to its promise. Even those who score high on psychological tests of empathy aren’t always empathic.* After all, empathy is hard work. As a result, people often choose to avoid empathy, viewing it as just not worth the effort.

One important factor is the nature of the relationship with another person. Research shows that the suffering of a perceived member of an outgroup dampens the empathic response compared to empathic concern for an ingroup member’s suffering.


What about within the realm of politics? Are we all just treating politics as though it were one big sports game? In this extremely partisan climate, it certainly seems so. As political psychologist Lilliana Mason put it, “a partisan behaves more like a sports fan than like a banker choosing an investment. Partisans feel emotionally connected to the welfare of the party; they prefer to spend time with other members of the party; and when the party is threatened, they become angry and work to help conquer the threat, even if they disagree with some of the issue positions taken by the party.”