Empathic failure and a call to unity

By: Karren Knowlton

The large majority of Democrats were shocked and confused when their candidate in the US Presidential election lost. Why didn’t they see this coming? Why were they optimistic, many considering this outcome unthinkable and unlikely? Is it because they are all spoiled millennials who are used to getting their way? No. Is it because people tend to build homogenous social spheres, composed mostly of other people who think like them? Partly, but not entirely. What about the pre-election polls? Again, partly to blame, but I believe there’s a deeper issue here.

Perhaps the most basic cause of the shock and disbelief that struck many on Wednesday was a failure of empathy. The failure of not attempting to deeply understand the viewpoints and perspectives of Trump’s supporters, of not trying to think like they do. It is precisely this failure of empathy, from all shades of the political spectrum, which will further divide our country, as long as we let it. From a social media post showing the resulting electoral college map with the tagline “This is why I never book flights with layovers,” to another one mocking the emotional responses of those who are disappointed, these words and actions create walls within our own nation, one degradation at a time.

Motivating empathy, especially between groups in conflict, is not easy, to say the least. Yet, research in social science may be able to help by shedding some light on how we can move from being disgusted in, embarrassed by, or disinterested in one another, to wanting to hear more, wanting to understand, and maybe even wanting to help the other group meet their goals (which, in some cases, we will find are our goals, too).

First, realize that you can feel empathy where you didn’t before.

Work by Dr. Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor at Stanford University, suggests that while many people view empathy as automatic, showing up in some situations and not others, this doesn’t have to be true.¹ Zaki suggests that people’s motives and goals can shape when they experience empathy. For example, a doctor may purposefully dampen her empathy toward a patient in order to not feel that person’s pain and be able to do her job. Further, when people view empathy as automatic, they interpret situations where they don’t feel empathy as a sign that the other person is very different from them. This could turn into a downward empathy spiral. Realizing that empathy can be intentionally turned up and down is important. When people understand that empathy is malleable, they spend more time listening to those who aren’t like them, and are more willing to learn how to be more empathetic.²

Second, if you view others as outsiders, you will feel less empathy for them.

Belonging to groups is considered a fundamental psychological need for humans³, but when we draw lines between “us” and “them,” our brains tend to treat the groups differently, even when they are not in conflict (but even more so if they are). We generally like in-group members more, favoring those who are like us4, trust them more, and are more cooperative with them.5 Along with these effects comes a consistent decrease in empathy for those who we consider to be outside of our group — an outcome that has been seen in many studies, looking at group boundaries along political, ethnic, and social categories.6,7 Fortunately, people come with many categories attached to them, many groups they fall into. Race, gender, and social class are often the most prominent because they are the most visible, but worker, American, and human, are groups as well. We can choose how to view those around us.

Third, break out of your bubble.

People intentionally put themselves in situations that will evoke empathy, such as watching documentaries or reading about others’ suffering.8 People also avoid interacting with people who they do not wish to empathize with, such as avoiding eye contact with a homeless person that one passes on the street. By selecting into and out of certain situations, we can influence when and for whom we feel empathy. Research suggests that unfortunately, we usually seek to empathize with our existing in-groups.¹ Thus, if we want to understand those who think differently than us, it will take specific, intentional action on our part to seek them out and to start an open-minded dialogue. And it may not take much — the famous psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that often, interpersonal contact is all that’s needed to improve relations between groups that are in conflict.9

In the next three days, I challenge you to try to empathize with at least one person who holds a different political or social point of view. Why? Because as Trump, Clinton, and Obama spoke about the election, they were unanimous about one thing. We need to unite. To me, that does not mean coalescing toward similar viewpoints or values, but coming together in our desire to understand each other and work together toward our future. Americans can be strong willed and fiercely passionate. Now, let us empathize with one another so that our strength and passion will fuel a fire that propels us instead of one that burns us.

“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.”  — John F. Kennedy, Speech at The American University, Washington, DC, June 10, 1963

1. Zaki, J. (2014). Empathy: A motivated account. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1608.
2. Schumann, K., Zaki, J., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Addressing the empathy deficit: beliefs about the malleability of empathy predict effortful responses when empathy is challenging. Journal of personality and social psychology, 107(3), 475.
3. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497.
4. Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways. Ginn. Boston, MA.
5. Brewer, M. B., & Kramer, R. M. (1986). Choice behavior in social dilemmas: Effects of social identity, group size, and decision framing. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(3), 543.
6. Mitchell, J. P., Macrae, C. N., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Dissociable medial prefrontal contributions to judgments of similar and dissimilar others. Neuron, 50(4), 655–663.
7. Leyens, J. P., Paladino, P. M., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez-Perez, A., & Gaunt, R. (2000). The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4(2), 186–197.
8. Iyengar, S., & Kinder, D. R. (2010). News that matters: Television and American opinion. University of Chicago Press.
9. Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books

Guest contributor Karren Knowlton is a doctoral student at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.