Empathizing with the opposition may make you more politically persuasive

Trying to understand people we disagree with can feel like an effort hardly worth making, particularly in contentious political environments in which offering even the smallest olive branch to the opposition can be perceived as betraying our own side. Research in Psychological Science, however,suggests that cross-partisan empathy may actually make our political arguments more persuasive, rather than softening our convictions. This holds true for even the most politically partisan among us.

“Empathizing across differences can not only help us better understand people’s perspectives but also make us more convincing advocates of our own beliefs,” said Luiza A. Santos, who conducted this research with Jan G. Voelkel, Robb Willer, and Jamil Zaki (Stanford University). People who are encouraged to value empathy across party lines are also more likely to support bipartisan cooperation and less likely to report hating people on the other side of a political issue, Santos added.

To explore how belief in the utility of empathy can decrease partisan animosity and increase political persuasiveness, Santos and colleagues conducted a series of four studies involving 3,650 Democrat and Republican participants in the United States.

In the first study of 411 participants, the researchers found that people who placed more value on cross-partisan empathy were also more likely to desire bipartisan cooperation and to hold less animosity toward the other political party. A follow-up study of 688 college freshmen revealed that students with more cross-partisan empathy were likelier than less empathetic students to report having more friends with different political beliefs.

Cross-partisan empathy isn’t a static trait, however — and Santos and colleagues’ work suggests that even the most politically partisan individuals may be open to walking in the opposition’s shoes.

A third study involved 1,551 participants using Amazon Mechanical Turk. When they read text arguing for or against the value of cross-partisan empathy, participants reacted as you might expect: Those in the high-utility condition, which emphasized increased understanding of the opposition, reported a greater desire for bipartisan cooperation and less out-party animosity, moral superiority, and desire to socially distance from political out-group members. Those in the low-utility condition, which emphasized the threat to their own beliefs, had the opposite response.

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