Empathy is the only way forward as a nation – here’s how we can gain more of it

Authors note: I originally wrote this not long after the election of November 2016, and for whatever reason, never published it. Having found it languishing in my draft folder, and still very relevant today, I decided I would publish it.

In the weeks leading up to the election of 2016, I held out hope that once the day had passed, regardless of the result, we might come together as a nation and move forward. After all, our republic stands on the basis of shared acceptance of election results, even when those results do not follow our desires. And while it’s perfectly fine to grumble or complain if our chosen candidate should lose, we pick up and move on. Perhaps we are motivated to take action, be it writing our representatives, or deciding to participate more fully in our political system, but ultimately there is a respect for the system that has maintained our nation for so long, and an understanding that while we may disagree, we are all still Americans.

This time, something is different. Not only has the level of spiteful rhetoric and anger not decreased, it has, at least in my experience, increased noticeably.

On the one hand, I see friends who supported the candidacy of Hillary Clinton declaring that any who dared vote for President-elect Trump are racists, xenophobes, and wholly rotten people. They openly brag about un-friending anyone who does not follow their own view, proudly proclaiming that they have cleansed themselves of any ties to those “deplorable” people.

On the other hand, I have friends who supported Mr. Trump, who gleefully express schadenfreude at the expression of utter dismay from the liberal half of our nation’s population. Any attempt to question their loyalty is met with scorn and derision. Those on the left are “sissies” and “crybabies” for expressing emotional distress at the election of someone whom they consider a danger to society as we know it (a claim met with more ridicule).

In both cases, there is something sorely lacking, something which, if we are going to heal and move forward as a nation, we must build more of into our hearts. That thing is empathy.

Why is this the case? Why have we lost our ability to feel compassion for our neighbors? I would argue that this empathy gap exists for two reasons. First, our brains are hard-wired to divide those around us into two camps: those on our side, and those who are not. Second, we as a nation are more polarized in our political views than we ever have been, a fact which exacerbates this built-in tendency towards hive-mind thinking.

Our Groupish Minds

The idea of group-centric behavior as an evolutionary mechanism can be seen as far back as the works of Charles Darwin. In his work The Descent of Man, Darwin said the following:

When two tribes of primeval men, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed and conquer the other.

When we think about it, this idea makes sense. Groups that tend to naturally band together to combine resources and fight opposing groups will tend to win out over those more fractured and individualistic groups.

In his 2012 work The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes at length about the groupish nature of humans (the book is in fact where I found the earlier quote from Darwin). Haidt goes on to give other examples of how this kind of tendency has served us well as humans became the dominant species on the planet. For example, he writes this about the idea of shared intentionality:

The Rubicon crossing that let out ancestors function so well in their groups was the emergence of the uniquely human ability to share intentions and other moral representations. This ability enabled early humans to collaborate, divide labor, and develop shared norms for judging each other’s behavior.

Humans are, as Haidt describes it, “90% chimpanzee and 10% bee”. We are highly individual creatures, but we possess in our neurological makeup a kind of “hive switch”, which when activated, binds us together in shared cooperation.

Think about this: what happens before nearly every sporting event across the nation? A song is played, and tens of thousands of people all simultaneously cease conversation, remove any hats, and place their hands reverently over their hearts. Recent deviation notwithstanding, this is an excellent example of how shared experience can bind us together as groups.

While this is, as we’ve discussed, a largely positive aspect of our makeup, it can result in the fracturing of social relations when this same tendency is invoked across populations within the nation. And that is exactly what is happening now.

The two Americas

Source: https://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

Over the past decade or so, the Pew Research Center has conducted a number of large surveys of Americans to determine, among other things, their views on a number of divisive political issues. They use this data to chart a representation of the distribution of political perspectives across and within party lines. The result is that we can clearly see how in the last decade, America’s population has become sharply divided.

In 2004, the median Republican and Democrat were not so far from each other. According to Pew, 30% of identified Republicans were actually more liberal than the median Democrat, and 32% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. This meant that both sides had folks who could effectively speak to the other party, fostering cooperation and consensus building. But since then, both sides have moved markedly to the edge of their corners of the ideological spectrum; in 2014, a mere 8% of Republicans and 6% of Democrats were more liberal and conservative (respectfully) than the median member of the opposing party.

In addition, people’s opinions on the other side have worsened. In 2004, 29% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans held unfavorable views about the opposing party. A decade later, those numbers rose to 38% and 43%, with more than third on average (27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans) believing that the other party was “a threat to the Nation’s well being.”1

This is the new America: a country so sharply divided that those on both sides feel that the other is a danger to the core of their country’s values.

Think about this: if you truly believe that an organization is a threat to the very way of life that you enjoy, would you want to work with them? Or would you oppose them at every turn, perhaps even justifying your actions with the use of labeling, name-calling, or other means to de-humanize or downplay the humanity of your opponent?

If this appears to be a very bleak picture, perhaps there is some light that we can see if we look closely. Amidst this polarization of the body politic, a number of researchers have shown that there are ways to bridge gaps in viewpoints and to bring people closer together by softening their views.

The power of listening

In the April of 2016 issue of the magazine Science, authors Joshua Kalla and David Broockman published a study showing that by using a technique they called “Deep Canvassing”, voters’ views could be changed reliably on matters as divisive as transgender rights. They found that “these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans’ average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012”, and that these changes were maintained after a three month waiting period.2

So what exactly is this magical technique? To a large extent, it consists of one thing: listening.

One organization which was heavily involved in the research for the article mentioned above is The Leadership Lab, a group dedicated to reducing prejudice against LGBT individuals. In a paper authored by members of the organization, they note that skills critical to the success of their efforts included “confident and friendly communication; asking for the voter’s point of view in an open way that made them comfortable being candid with us; listening to them as they shared their point of view; and focusing on their and our real, lived experiences rather than on their intellectual opinion or entrenched stance on the issue.” They further noted that “our success depended on canvassers knowing how to listen; how to focus on each voter’s real, lived experience; how to follow up by digging into whatever the voter says that seems to carry some emotional weight; how to ask open-ended questions; and how to do all of this in a non-judgmental way, so each voter is comfortable being candid with us.”3

This is the way to the heart: through careful and patient listening, asking questions, and as author and productivity guru Steven Covey once wrote, “seek[ing] first to understand, then to be understood.”

If we have empathy for others, we are more likely to engage in socially cooperative behavior. Studies by Professor Paul Van Lange (now at Oxford University) have shown that empathy boosts altruistic motivation4 and that cultivating empathy can result in more cooperative behavior, even in the face of confusing or ambiguous behavior from another individual5.

After listening to, and hopefully understanding, the other side, only then should we attempt to engage in discussion. But to do that, we must effectively speak the language of the other side, which is, in fact, more difficult than we might imagine.

How we think is more like how we feel

We see ourselves as rational, calculating, reasoning beings. We look at facts, we make comparative judgments and form informed opinions. But in fact, we are less Vulcan-like than we imagine. As it turns out, even at the genetic level, our opinions and views of the world may have less to do with facts, and more with built-in sensitivities and biases.

In The Righteous Mind (there’s that book again, you really should just go read it), Haidt discusses several studies that show this. For example, one showed that when people were exposed to a noxious smell, they were harsher in their moral judgments6. In another, it was found that “a threat to one’s moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself”7. All these support the core idea that we are emotional creatures first and foremost, and reasoning creatures secondarily.

This being true, we have to construct our arguments in line with what matters to our audience. Haidt’s work is helpful here as well, as he identifies what he terms six moral foundations: Care / harm, Fairness / cheating, Authority / subversion, Loyalty / betrayal, Sanctity / degradation, and Liberty / Oppression. In essence, these six axes define how we view the world in terms of morality, and since politics is a deeply moral subject, often how we vote.

Take, for example, the Fairness / Cheating axis. Liberals tend to fall very much towards the Fairness side; they find it incredibly important that everyone gets an equal share, hence their support of broader social welfare programs and things like higher taxes on the wealthy. On the other hand, conservatives fall towards the Cheating side; they are sensitive towards people taking advantage of the system or the goodwill of others (remember how effective Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” tactic was?).

With this in mind, it makes complete sense why those on the left would have little luck trying to convince conservatives of the moral justification for programs like Medicare, food stamps, or the like. Their arguments often center around the idea that without these programs, people would suffer needlessly, but conservatives do not see things that way. Instead, they see these programs as opportunities for people to take advantage of the system and will cling desperately to any stories supporting this narrative.

On the opposite side, consider the Authority / Subversion axis. Conservatives consistently rank higher on this than do liberals, which may explain things such as the pervasiveness of religion or strict obedience to cultural norms in conservative populations. But liberals don’t understand this; they may see religion as “merely an accident of history”, and as a “[demonstration] of mental illness to believe that [God] is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.”8

Is it any wonder it seems like when we talk to our conservative or liberal friends, we’re speaking in tongues?

There is good news in all this, however: with practice, we can learn to speak in ways that those on the opposite side of the political spectrum can understand. Research by Stanford Professor Robb Willer has shown that “reframing pro-environmental rhetoric in terms of purity, a moral value resonating primarily among conservatives, largely eliminated the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ environmental attitudes”9. In an episode of the (excellent) You Are Not So Smart podcast, Willer noted just how difficult formulating these arguments from a moral framework outside his own was.

But with effort and persistence, we can put forth arguments that will help bring each other closer together. We might invoke conservatives’ love of country by arguing that social programs such as Medicare benefit older Americans, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Or we might show liberals how religion positively affects things like drug and alcohol abuse or domestic violence10, thereby preventing harm to vulnerable populations such as children.

In conclusion, if America as a nation is to heal and move forward as a whole, we must focus on two core principles: first to listen to and understand others, and second to speak to what is important to those we seek to persuade, not ourselves. We are a polarized nation, perhaps more so than at any point in our history, so these principles are more important now than ever before.

When the last shots of the American Revolution were fired, a great consensus emerged, one hammered out in the dimly lit corridors of the new capital, based on shared values and a belief in the natural rights of all humans. We have persevered through great trial and peril, from war to economic strife and all manner of hardship. We have done so because, despite our differences, we have believed this core truth: we are all, every one of us, Americans. If our great political experiment is to survive, we must return to cultivating that belief, and not give in to partisan bickering and allow the bonds that bind us to be split asunder.


  1. http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-2-growing-partisan-antipathy/pp-2014-06-12-polarization-2-03/ 
  2. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6282/220 
  3. http://www.leadership-lab.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Miami-Report-Final-v4.pdf 
  4. Van Lange, P. (2008). Does Empathy Trigger Only Altruistic Motivation? How About Selflessness or Justice?. Emotion, 8(6), 766 
  5. Rumble, A., Van Lange, P., & Parks, C. (2010). The benefits of empathy: When empathy may sustain cooperation in social dilemmas. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(5), 856-866. 
  6. Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G., & Jordan, A. (2008). Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1096 
  7. Zhong, C., & Liljenquist, K. (2006, September 8). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science. 
  8. These are quotes from the book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by noted atheist Sam Harris. 
  9. https://sociology.stanford.edu/publications/moral-roots-environmental-attitudes 
  10. ELLISON, C., BARTKOWSKI, J., & ANDERSON, K. (1999). Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?. Journal of Family Issues, 20(1), 87-113. 

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