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Empathy May Be Key to Political Persuasion

Empathy May Be Key to Political Persuasion

The basic moral systems of liberals and conservatives are, of course, very different. Conservatives, for example, tend to put a stronger emphasis on justice, hard work, and personal responsibility, while liberals tend to place more emphasis on fairness, equal opportunity, and mercy.

If the two parties want to find common ground and ensure a much better chance of success, however, they need to present their own cases based on the other party’s moral principles, not just their own. Researchers Drs. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer decided to investigate this idea after seeing the increasing polarization in American politics.

“We were trying to figure out ways to overcome the polarization,” said Feinberg, who teaches organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Willer is a sociologist at Stanford University.

The two researchers conducted a series of experiments that had participants think of arguments that would support their own party’s cause but would also strongly appeal to someone of the opposite political viewpoint. A theoretical framework of values was used to define what qualified as a liberal or conservative argument.

The findings showed that both groups were extremely poor at developing arguments that would appeal to their political opposite, even when specifically asked to do so. In fact, some participants in both camps actually attacked the morality of those they’d been asked to convince.

“Most people are not very good at appealing to other people’s values,” said Feinberg.

Liberals asked to appeal to conservatives for support of same-sex marriage, for example, had only a nine percent success rate in developing arguments based on conservative values of loyalty, authority, or purity (such as, “our fellow citizens deserve to stand alongside us …”).

Similarly, only eight percent of conservatives came up with liberal-friendly arguments about why English should be adopted as the official language of the United States, based on principles of fairness and protection from harm (e.g. “there will be less discrimination”).

Conservatives were more inclined to support universal health care when presented with purity-based arguments that more uninsured people might lead to more spread of disease. Liberals showed greater support for higher military spending when shown an argument stating that the military and the employment opportunities it provides could help reduce inequality.

The findings are timely as Canadian political operatives analyze results of their recent federal election and party organizers in the U.S. consider how to build bridges with voters for the 2016 election.

“Instead of alienating the other side and just repeating your own sense of morality, start thinking about how your political opposition thinks and see if you can frame messages that fit with that thought process,” said Feinberg.

The findings are published online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Source: University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

Showing empathy photo by shutterstock.

Empathy May Be Key to Political Persuasion

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Empathy May Be Key to Political Persuasion. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 17 Nov 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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