In his victory speech in November, President-elect Joe Biden urged Americans “to see each other again, listen to each other again.” The moment felt like an opportunity to connect and heal. Political scientist Ian Bremmer tweeted: “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump. Empathize with them.”
Responses were swift — and scathing. For a moment, the country came together: in rejecting Bremmer’s plea. People on the right didn’t want to be patronized by those who had called them racists and fascists; people on the left refused to coddle supporters of an oppressive and discriminatory administration.
During fractious times, empathy can seem as effective as bringing cotton candy to a gunfight. When the other side is viewed as an existential threat, meeting opponents halfway can feel dangerous — equivalent to betraying one’s side and giving up your ideals.
Still, empathy should have a place in our national discourse.
As researchers who study empathy and political division, we think some conversations miss how and why empathy could be useful right now. Empathy can seem like a privilege when people’s rights or safety are threatened, and, of course, no one owes empathy to anyone else. But surprising things can happen when people decide to lead with empathy. Consider:
Empathy does not require agreement or liking. People balk at cross-party empathy because they don’t want to feel warmly toward someone whose ideology repels them. It’s already exhausting to feel the pain of friends and family. Why do that for someone who won’t return the favor?
Psychologists distinguish between “emotional empathy,” or vicariously sharing other people’s feelings, and “cognitive empathy,” or trying to understand another person’s perspective. These may seem like different sides of the same coin, but cognitive and emotional empathy are only weakly correlated and are supported by different brain systems, suggesting they are largely distinct.
Cognitive empathy does not require weeping for someone whose views frighten or anger you. Put another way: You can understand others without condoning their beliefs or compromising your own.
Empathy has many uses. Taking others’ perspectives can be crucial to success. It is helpful in competitive settings, such as playing chess or poker. In politics, listening to people with whom you disagree can be an effective persuasion tactic; “deep canvassing” involves not barraging people with facts but asking about their experiences and sharing stories.
This might seem comically squishy given today’s divisions, but deep canvassing is more effective than most forms of political outreach. It has persuaded voters to support the rights of trans people and undocumented immigrants. This year, deep canvassers even converted Trump voters to Biden.
How else can cognitive empathy persuade? Understanding the values of those on the other side can help people frame policy preferences (say, immigrant rights) in the language of others’ values (like supporting the American dream). Our own studies find that doing so renders arguments more convincing.
The other side’s hate is probably overestimated. The steady growth in Democrats’ and Republicans’ dislike of each other interferes with Americans’ ability to agree on policy, and likely short-circuits empathy. But individuals commonly overestimate how ideologically extreme the other side is and how much it is driven by animosity.
In recent studies, psychologists asked Republicans and Democrats how they felt about the other party’s voters and what they believed out-party voters (supporters of Republicans if the individual responding voted Democrat) felt about them. Both groups expressed some prejudice against the other side. Both also vastly exaggerated how much prejudice the other party’s voters felt toward their own. These perceptions were associated with desires to avoid out-party members and with support of undemocratic policies such as gerrymandering. In effect, the misperceptions became self-fulfilling prophecies.
Of course, some extremists and trolls will never join productive conversations, and efforts to empathize with them are probably useless. But polarized media diets can convey the impression that the other side is mostly this obstinate. These mistaken beliefs can make people renounce empathy, curtailing potential progress.
Empathy alone cannot heal our country’s divides. That will require material changes, such as addressing inequality to improve living standards. But the 2020 election results revealed patches of common ground in which empathy could be rooted. For example, minimum-wage increases, and marijuana legalization, won in landslides even in conservative states. Empathic conversations and deep canvassing could help orient voters toward shared goals, something likely to be more successful than trying to drag opponents toward progress.
Even if empathy doesn’t cure our ills, abandoning it could deepen them. Researchers describe “lose-lose agreements,” in which individuals — fearful of giving ground to their opponent — end up with an outcome worse for both sides. Our politics are caught in a lose-lose spiral in which every point scored by one side represents a zero-sum loss for the other. Left unchecked, this frame will lead to darker times.
Empathy is not a weakness. Listening with genuine curiosity can disarm people and open them to seeing things differently. Although grim times can tempt people to abandon empathy, surviving our divisions might require us all to choose it.