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Political Empathy & Moral Matrices

It’s difficult to make objective predictions about our future self. No matter how hard we try, we’re always influenced by the present. In one study, for example, researchers phoned people around the country and asked them how satisfied they were with their lives. They found that “when people who lived in cities that happened to be having nice weather that day imagined their lives, they reported that their lives were relatively happy; but when people who lived in cities that happened to be having bad weather that day imagined their lives, they reported that their lives were relatively unhappy.”

Similarly, a few years ago researchers went to a local gym and asked people who had just finished working out if food or water would be more important if they were lost in the woods. Like good social scientists, they asked the same question to people who were just about to work out. They found that 92 percent of the folks who just finished working out said that water would be more important; only 61 percent of people who were about to work out made the same prediction.

Physical states are difficult to transcend, and they often cause us to project our feelings onto everyone else. If I’m cold, you must be too. If I like the food, you should too. We are excellent self-projectors (or maybe that’s just me). Sometimes there are more consequential downsides to this uniquely human ability. And this brings me to a new study led by Ed O’Brien out of the University of Michigan recently published in Psychological Science. (via Maia Szalavitz at

The researchers braved the cold for the first experiment. They approached subjects at a bus stop in January (sometimes the temperature was as low as -14 degrees F) and asked them to read a short story about a hiker who was taking a break from campaigning when he got lost in the woods without adequate food, water and clothing. For half of the subjects the lost hiker was a left leaning and pro-gay rights Democrat; the other half read about a right-wing Republican. Next, the researchers asked the subjects their political views and which feeling was most unpleasant for the stranded hiker – being thirsty, hungry or cold. (For female participants, the hiker was described as female; for men, the hiker was male.) While these chilly interviews were being conducted O’Brien and his team ran the same study in a cozy library. Did the two groups show different answers?

The first thing O’Brien found was consistent with the gym study: 94 percent of the people waiting for the bus said the cold was the most unpleasant feeling for the hiker compared to only 57 percent of the library dwellers. Here’s were things got interesting: “If participants disagreed with the hiker’s politics… their own personal physical state had no bearing on their response: people chose the cold in equal numbers, regardless of where they were interviewed.” In other words, we don’t show as much empathy towards people who don’t share our political beliefs.

Their findings are disheartening given the current political climate in the United States. If we cannot empathize with someone who doesn’t share our political views, how are we supposed to engage in rational discourse with them? In order to work out our differences, it seems like we need to first recognize that we are the same deep down.

The larger problem is that compassion, empathy and moral sentiments towards other people binds and blinds. As one author says, “we all get sucked into tribal moral communities, circling around something sacred and then sharing post-hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.”

How do we break out of our political matrices? Here’s one idea: let’s take the red pill and realize that we all can’t be right while remembering that we all have something to contribute. This is what the Asian religions nailed on the head. Ying and Yang aren’t enemies because like night and day they are necessary for the functioning of the world. Vishnu the preserver (who stands for conservative principles) and Shiva the destroyer (who stands for liberal principles), the two of the high Gods in Hinduism, cooperate to preserve the universe. It’s a cliché worth repeating: let’s work together to get along.

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