Becoming More Empathic May Change Your Political Views


Some interesting new research finds that people are capable of working consciously to develop or change dimensions of themselves, including personality traits such as empathy. That, in turns, can affect their views of social and political issues. Specifically, this study found that efforts to increase empathy in your relationships or more broadly, towards others – including those of different life experiences and situations — can lead to changes in your political ideology towards more liberal values.

The research, from the University of Michigan and the University of Grenada and described here, found that developing greater empathy led to “…changes in their political souls as well, which maybe they weren’t intending. We saw that in these personality changes toward greater empathy, people placed a lot more importance upon more liberal ideologies — like how you should treat other people and take others’ perspectives,” according to lead author William Chopik.

This finding relates to what I’ve written about in a previous essay – what I called an “empathy deficit disorder.” Originally written for the Washington Post and then for Psychology Today, I explained that when you suffer from “EDD” you’re unable to step outside yourself and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think, and believe differently from yourself. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication breakdown in intimate relationships, and of adversarial attitudes, including hatred, towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions, or ways of life from your own.  I think that “empathy deficit disorder” is increasingly prominent in our society today; more so in this era of polarization of people’s beliefs, perspectives, values, and attitudes about public policy.

Interestingly, the researchers in the new study weren’t aiming to determine if developing personality traits like empathy relate to political party preferences. Rather, they looked at what happens if a person works successfully to change some dimension of themselves: what might that alter in their moral framework and ideological orientation in general.  That is, the research looked at changes in one’s moral framework that might result from conscious effort to make changes in one’s personality traits. 

Chopik pointed out that liberal and progressive people tended to prioritize two of the five moral foundations the researchers investigated: care and fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand, also prioritized loyalty to the ingroup, respect for authority, and observance of purity and sanctity standards.

The study’s findings indicated that when people became empathic, that reflected increased exposure and openness to others’ lives and situations. It expanded one’s perspectives. And that, in turn, carried over to one’s moral framework and ideology: towards more of a liberal ideology, politically.

How the study was conducted is described here, and was published in the Journal of Research in Personality.


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