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The US has an empathy problem, and it might be what’s causing the current toxic political environment

An unidentified anti-Trump protestor (L) and an unidentified Trump supporter (R) get into a scuffle outside the venue where U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was speaking in downtown Denver, U.S. July 1, 2016.
Reuters/Chris Schneider
The hate is palpable in the US right now.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

As the election season comes to an end, many Americans feel defeated, even if they believe their candidate is about to win. Many have lost friendships and alienated family members; even among like-minded partisans there’s a sense of uneasiness. At both ends of the political spectrum, people feel their needs aren’t being considered, and that others either can’t or won’t imagine their struggles. The takeaway is that the US has an empathy problem; what’s not yet clear is whether it’s a cause or a symptom of the current political culture.

Though they don’t always use the word, those writing about the Trump phenomenon have implored the left to empathize with those who struggle with rural poverty and joblessness and feel they’ve been forgotten. Writers covering the anti-Trump movement relay the oft-repeated belief that far-right conservatives don’t care about anyone’s wellbeing but their own. The truth is more complicated, but the need to figure it out feels more urgent than ever.

“We are in many ways a caring nation,” says Riane Eisler, a cultural historian and president of the Center for Partnership Studies, a California-based human rights and childhood development organization. “But the U.S. is a very mixed bag, and the current phenomenon is really frightening.”

Eisler has studied political and social systems around the world, and introduced the concepts of “domination culture”—a top-down system based on fear or force—and “partnership society”—a system based on mutual support. In times of economic insecurity, she explains, people tend to gravitate toward the systems they’re most familiar with. If a person is used to being, or feeling, dominated, they might gravitate toward that quality in the people they form attachments to, from friends to political leaders. Partnership-driven people are affected in the same way.

People tend to save what empathy they have for those who are like-minded and “to hell with the rest.”

In either case, we end up with in-groups whose members tend to save what empathy they have for those who are like-minded and “to hell with the rest,” Eisler says. In a situation that feels desperate—like the current presidential election—fears can be fanned by rhetoric, compounding that compartmentalization. In other words, as long as the climate of fear continues, the division we’ve seen cut through our families and communities this year may get worse before it gets better.

It also seems to validate the view of those critics who wonder if the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes is actually all that valuable. Paul Bloom, a Yale psychology professor, argues that empathy is not helpful in public discourse or decision-making because it’s biased. “We are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background,” he has said. It’s also hard to extrapolate empathy to more than a few individuals—once there are thousands of refugees to worry about, we tend to go numb.

But rather than set empathy aside, some in the field of political science and international relations are beginning to take it more seriously as a measure of—or tool for—good policy. Laura Roselle, an expert in international political communication at Elon University in North Carolina, notes that there are at least two current strains of scholarship focused on the importance of emotions and empathy. One seeks to dispel the idea that international relations have to rely on a masculine narrative of power politics; the other encourages shifting away from the notion of hard rationality as the end-all be-all of politics, and toward acceptance of the idea that emotions have a place in politics alongside logic.

Roselle argues it’s hard to deny the role of emotions when individuals so often report fear as a driving factor in their political decisions. “If fear is important as an emotion—and we’ve been talking about fear this whole election cycle—then empathy must be important as well,” Roselle says.

Empathy is hard to measure, though, and can mean different things to different cultures. A recent survey published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology attempted to find out how empathy varies across cultures using data gathered through an online survey of around 100,000 people from 63 countries. The people who took the survey were asked questions about compassion and how often they imagined things from the point of view of others. The researchers found that countries where respondents reported higher levels of conscientiousness, self esteem, and dedication to the group over the individual scored high for empathy. The conclusion is that empathy is part of a bigger network of psychological characteristics.

Unsurprisingly, most media coverage of the study focused on the researchers’ ranking of the 10 most empathetic countries: Ecuador came in at number one and Saudi Arabia placed second. The US came in seventh.

The US likes to hold itself up as a paragon of virtue and human rights.

The US likes to hold itself up as a paragon of virtue and human rights, a country that makes mistakes but does not oppress its people like Saudi Arabia does. But the survey actually found that the differences in empathy between countries were quite small—in some cases, a hundredth of a point. In general, it paints a picture of a world that is pretty empathetic overall.

“There are a bunch of things that predicted a country’s rankings,” says Will Chopik of Michigan State University, the lead author of the study.  “In general, things like helpfulness, happiness, and how emotionally expressive the people are, are the largest predictors.”

Though it’s not really clear that people in Ecuador and Saudi Arabia are more empathetic than people in the US—the survey was very preliminary and not necessarily representative, according to the researchers—it might give us some needed perspective. Chopik and his team are working on getting funding for a more in-depth study of empathy across cultures through comprehensive sampling. They hope to discover how empathy changes during times of major economic and political upheaval.

In the meantime, the 2016 election could prove a good case study. Many observers predict unrest and violence regardless of the outcome. Even if no blood is shed, our newly formed factions are unlikely to dissolve after Nov. 8. How they evolve over the next weeks and months could show us what’s more powerful: our fear, or our empathy.

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