Persuasive Litigator: Know the Limits of Political Empathy

Empathy Across the Aisles: The Research

One very basic way to measure empathy is to start with the human tendency to apply our own visceral states to others: If we are thirsty, we are more sensitive to another’s thirst. Same for heat, cold, and other forms of comfort. But based on O’Brien and Ellsworth’s work, there are some important differences in who benefits from these projections. The pair showed that participants avoid applying their own visceral states to the evaluation of others who are described as hailing from the opposite end of the political spectrum.



In two studies focusing on cold and thirst, the University of Michigan researchers found that research participants followed the well-documented pattern of applying their own cold or thirst to the evaluation of others, but not when those others were represented as having opposing political views. That indicates that we’re less likely to extend basic empathy to those who are different, not just in demographic or observable terms, but different in beliefs as well. “All else being equal,” the authors conclude, “knowledge of another person’s politics should not influence how cold or thirsty one thinks he or she is, but it does.”