How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization

Simas, Elizabeth N.; Clifford, Scott; Kirkland, Justin H.
American Political Science Review

Over the past two decades, there has been a marked increase in partisan social polarization, leaving scholars in search of solutions to partisan conflict. The psychology of intergroup relations identifies empathy as one of the key mechanisms that reduces intergroup conflict, and some have suggested that a lack of empathy has contributed to partisan polarization. Yet, empathy may not always live up to this promise. We argue that, in practice, the experience of empathy is biased toward one’s ingroup and can actually exacerbate political polarization. First, using a large, national sample, we demonstrate that higher levels of dispositional empathic concern are associated with higher levels of affective polarization. Second, using an experimental design, we show that individuals high in empathic concern show greater partisan bias in evaluating contentious political events. Taken together, our results suggest that, contrary to popular views, higher levels of dispositional empathy actually facilitate partisan polarization.