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How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization

  • ELIZABETH N. SIMAS (a1), SCOTT CLIFFORD (a1) and JUSTIN H. KIRKLAND (a2)

Abstract

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.

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Corresponding author

*Elizabeth N. Simas, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Houston, ensimas@uh.edu.
Scott Clifford, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Houston, scliffor@central.uh.edu.
Justin H. Kirkland, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, University of Virginia, jhk9y@virginia.edu.

Footnotes

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The authors would like to thank Kevin Banda, Nathaniel Birkhead, Spencer Piston, and the participants in the Texas A&M University Political Institutions and Political Behavior Research Program Speaker Series for helpful feedback on earlier drafts. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/RJL2DK.

Footnotes

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How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization

  • ELIZABETH N. SIMAS (a1), SCOTT CLIFFORD (a1) and JUSTIN H. KIRKLAND (a2)

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