Skip to main content Accessibility help

How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization



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.


Corresponding author

*Elizabeth N. Simas, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Houston,
Scott Clifford, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Houston,
Justin H. Kirkland, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, University of Virginia,


Hide All

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:



Hide All
Abramowitz, Alan I. 2011. The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Abramowitz, Alan I., and Saunders, Kyle L.. 2008. “Is Polarization a Myth?The Journal of Politics 70 (2): 542–55.
Abramowitz, Alan I., and Webster, Steven. 2016. “The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of US Elections in the 21st Century.” Electoral Studies 41: 12–22.
Abramowitz, Alan I., and Webster, Steven W.. 2018. “Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties but Behave like Rabid Partisans.” Political Psychology 39: 119–35.
Abramowitz, Alan, and McCoy, Jennifer. 2019. “United States: Racial Resentment, Negative Partisanship, and Polarization in Trump’s America.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681 (1): 137–56.
Allport, Gordon. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. New York: Doubleday Anchor.
Banda, Kevin K. and Kirkland, Justin H.. 2018. “Legislative Party Polarization and Trust in State Legislatures.” American Politics Research 46 (4): 596–628.
Batson, C. Daniel, Chang, Johee, Orr, Ryan, and Rowland, Jennifer. 2002. “Empathy, Attitudes, and Action: Can Feeling for a Member of a Stigmatized Group Motivate One to Help the Group?Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28 (12): 1656–66.
Batson, Daniel C., Polycarpou, Marina P., Harmon-Jones, Eddie, Imhoff, Heidi J., Mitchener, Erin C., Bednar, Lori L., Klein, Tricia R., and Highberger, Lori. 1997. “Empathy and Attitudes: Can Feeling for a Member of a Stigmatized Group Improve Feelings toward the Group?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 (1): 105–18.
Batson, C. Daniel, and Ahmad, Nadia Y.. 2009. “Using Empathy to Improve Intergroup Attitudes and Relations.” Social Issues and Policy Review 3 (1): 141–77.
Batson, C. Daniel, Fultz, Jim, and Schoenrade, Patricia A.. 1987. “Distress and Empathy: Two Qualitatively Distinct Vicarious Emotions with Different Motivational Consequences.” Journal of Personality 55 (1): 19–39.
Bekkers, Rene. 2005. “Participation in Voluntary Associations: Relations with Resources, Personality, and Political Values.” Political Psychology 26 (3): 439–54.
Binder, Sarah A. 1999. “The Dynamics of Legislative Gridlock, 1947–96.” American Political Science Review 93 (03): 519–33.
Bisgaard, Martin. 2015. “Bias will find a way: Economic perceptions, attributions of blame, and partisan-motivated reasoning during crisis.” The Journal of Politics 77 (3): 849–60.
Bloom, Paul. 2016. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. New York: Harper Collins.
Butrus, Ninawa, and Witenberg, Rivka T.. 2013. “Some Personality Predictors of Tolerance to Human Diversity: The Roles of Openness, Agreeableness, and Empathy.” Australian Psychologist 48 (4): 290–98.
Cameron, C. Daryl, Harris, Lasana T., and Payne, B. Keith. 2016. “The Emotional Cost of Humanity: Anticipated Exhaustion Motivates Dehumanization of Stigmatized Targets.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 7 (2): 105–12.
Cameron, C. Daryl, and Payne, B. Keith. 2011. “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100 (1): 1–15.
Cikara, Mina, Bruneau, Emile G., and Saxe, Rebecca R.. 2011. “Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 20 (3): 149–53.
Clifford, Scott, Kirkland, Justin H., and Simas, Elizabeth N.. 2019. “How Dispositional Empathy Influences Political Ambition.” The Journal of Politics 81 (3): 1043–56.
Combs, David J.Y., Powell, Caitlin A.J., Schurtz, David Ryan, and Smith, Richard H.. 2009. “Politics, Schadenfreude, and Ingroup Identification: The Sometimes Happy Thing about a Poor Economy and Death.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (4): 635–46.
Crawford, Jarret T., and Pilanski, Jane M.. 2014. “Political Intolerance, Right and Left.” Political Psychology 35 (6): 841–51.
Davis, Mark H. 1983. “Measuring Individual Differences in Empathy: Evidence for a Multidimensional Approach.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 44 (1): 113–26.
Davis, Mark H., and Franzoi, Stephen L.. 1991. “Stability and Change in Adolescent Self-Consciousness and Empathy.” Journal of Research in Personality 25 (1): 70–87.
Decety, Jean, and Svetlova, Margarita. 2012. “Putting Together Phylogenetic and Ontogenetic Perspectives on Empathy.” Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 2 (1): 1–24.
Ditto, Peter H., and Koleva, Spassena P.. 2011. “Moral Empathy Gaps and the American Culture War.” Emotion Review 3 (3): 331–32.
Dovidio, John F., Gaertner, Samuel L., and Kawakami, Kerry. 2003. “Intergroup Contact: The Past, Present, and the Future.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 6 (1): 521.
Dovidio, John F., Johnson, James D., Gaertner, Samuel L., and Pearson, Adam R.. 2010. “Empathy and Intergroup Relations.” In Prosocial Motives, Emotions, and Behavior: The Better Angels of Our Nature, eds. Mikulincer, Mario and Shaver, Phillip R.. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 393–408.
Edele, Aileen, Dziobek, Isabel, and Keller, Monika. 2013. “Explaining Altruistic Sharing in the Dictator Game: The Role of Affective Empathy, Cognitive Empathy, and Justice Sensitivity.” Learning and Individual Differences 24: 96102.
Eisenberg, Nancy, and Fabes, Richard A.. 1990. “Empathy: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Relation to Prosocial Behavior.” Motivation and Emotion 14 (2): 131–49.
Epley, Nicholas, Caruso, Eugene, and Bazerman, Max H.. 2006. “When Perspective Taking Increases Taking: Reactive Egoism in Social Interaction.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91 (5): 872–89.
Fiorina, Morris P., Abrams, Samuel J., and Pope, Jeremy C.. 2011. Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America. New York: Longman.
Flache, Andreas, and Macy, Michael W.. 2011. “Small Worlds and Cultural Polarization.” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 35 (1–3): 146–76.
Fowler, James H. and Kam, Cindy D.. 2007. “Beyond the self: Social identity, altruism, and political participation.” The Journal of Politics 69 (3): 813–27.
Gaines, Brian J., and Kuklinski, James H.. 2011. “Experimental Estimation of Heterogeneous Treatment Effects Related to Self-Selection.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (3): 724–36.
Gerson, Marylie W., and Neilson, Leanne. 2014. “The Importance of Identity Development, Principled Moral Reasoning, and Empathy as Predictors of Openness to Diversity in Emerging Adults.” SAGE Open 4(4).
Gift, Karen, and Gift, Thomas. 2014. “Does Politics Influence Hiring? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment.” Political Behavior 37 (3): 653–75.
Gimpel, James G., and Hui, Iris S.. 2015. “Seeking Politically Compatible Neighbors? The Role of Neighborhood Partisan Composition in Residential Sorting.” Political Geography 48: 130–42.
Gutsell, Jennifer N., and Inzlicht, Michael. 2012. “Intergroup Differences in the Sharing of Emotive States: Neural Evidence of an Empathy Gap.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 7 (5): 596–603.
Hart, William, Albarracin, Dolores, Eagly, Alice, Brechan, Inge, Lindberg, Matthew, and Merrill, Lisa. 2009. “Feeling Validated versus Being Correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information.” Psychological Bulletin 135 (4): 555–88.
Healy, Andrew, Kuo, Alexander G., and Malhotra, Neil. 2014. “Partisan bias in blame attribution: when does it occur?.” Journal of Experimental Political Science 1 (2): 144158.
Hein, Grit, Silani, Giorgia, Preuschoff, Kerstin, Batson, C. Daniel, and Singer, Tania. 2010. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (1): 149–60.
Hetherington, Marc J., Long, Meri T., and Rudolph, Thomas J.. 2016. “Revisiting the Myth: New Evidence of a Polarized Electorate.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (S1): 321–50.
Hetherington, Marc J. 2009. “Putting Polarization in Perspective.” British Journal of Political Science 39 (39): 413–48.
Hetherington, Marc, and Rudolph, Thomas. 2015. Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hodges, Sara D., Kiel, Kristi J., Kramer, Adam D.I., Veach, Darya, and Villanueva, Renee. 2010. “Giving Birth to Empathy: The Effects of Similar Experience on Empathic Accuracy, Empathic Concern, and Perceived Empathy.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36 (3): 398–409.
Iyengar, Shanto, Sood, Gaurav, and Lelkes, Yphtach. 2012. “Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (3): 405–31.
Iyengar, Shanto, and Westwood, Sean J.. 2015. “Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence on group polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59 (3): 690707.
Jones, David R. 2001. “Party Polarization and Legislative Gridlock.” Political Research Quarterly 54 (1): 125–41.
Jordan, Matthew R., Amir, Dorsa, and Bloom, Paul. 2016. “Are Empathy and Concern Psychologically Distinct?Emotion 16 (8): 1107.
Klar, Samara, Krupnikov, Yanna, and Ryan, John Barry. 2018. “Affective polarization or partisan disdain? Untangling a dislike for the opposing party from a dislike of partisanship.” Public Opinion Quarterly 82 (2): 379–90.
Kunstman, Jonathan W., and Plant, E. Ashby. 2008. “Racing to Help: Racial Bias in High Emergency Helping Situations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 (6): 1499–510.
Leach, Colin Wayne, and Spears, Russell. 2009. “Dejection at in-group defeat and schadenfreude toward second-and third-party out-groups.” Emotion 9 (5): 659.
Lelkes, Yphtach, and Westwood, Sean J.. 2017. “The limits of partisan prejudice.” The Journal of Politics 79 (2): 485501.
Levendusky, Matthew S. 2009. The partisan sort: How liberals became Democrats and conservatives became Republicans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Levendusky, Matthew S. 2013. “Why Do Partisan Media Polarize Viewers?American Journal of Political Science 57 (3): 611–23.
Levendusky, Matthew S. 2018. “When efforts to depolarize the electorate fail.” Public Opinion Quarterly 82 (3): 583–92.
Mason, Lilliana. 2015. “‘I Disrespectfully Agree’: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59 (1): 128–45.
Mason, Lilliana. 2016. “A cross-cutting calm: How social sorting drives affective polarization.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (S1): 351–77.
Mutz, Diana. 2006. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nelissen, Rob M.A., and Zeelenberg, Marcel. 2009. “Moral Emotions as Determinants of Third-Party Punishment: Anger, Guilt, and the Functions of Altruistic Sanctions.” Judgment and Decision Making 4 (7): 543–53.
Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Tropp, Linda R.. 2008. “How Does Intergroup Contact Reduce Prejudice? Meta-Analytic Tests of Three Mediators.” European Journal of Social Psychology 38 (6): 922–34.
Pettigrew, Thomas, and Tropp, Linda. 2011. When Groups Meet: The Dynamics of Intergroup Contact. New York: Psychology Press.
Pew Research Center. 2016. “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016.”
Pierce, Jason R., Kilduff, Gavin J., Galinsky, Adam D., and Sivanathan, Niro. 2013. “From Glue to Gasoline: How Competition Turns Perspective Takers Unethical.” Psychological Science 24 (10): 1986–94.
Pratto, Felicia, and Glasford, Demis E.. 2008. “Ethnocentrism and the Value of a Human Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 (6): 1411–28.
Sassenrath, Claudia, Hodges, Sara D., and Pfattheicher, Stefan. 2016. “It’s All about the Self: When Perspective Taking Backfires.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 25 (6): 405–10.
Sears, David O., and Freedman, Jonathan L.. 1967. “Selective Exposure to Information: A Critical Review.” Public Opinion Quarterly 31 (2): 194.
Sirin, Cigdem V., Valentino, Nicholas A., and Villalobos, José D.. 2016. “Group Empathy Theory: The Effect of Group Empathy on US Intergroup Attitudes and Behavior in the Context of Immigration Threats.” The Journal of Politics 78 (3): 893–908.
Sirin, Cigdem V., Valentino, Nicholas A., and Villalobos, José D.. 2017. “The Social Causes and Political Consequences of Group Empathy.” Political Psychology 38 (3): 427–48.
Skorinko, Jeanine L., and Sinclair, Stacey A.. 2013. “Perspective Taking Can Increase Stereotyping: The Role of Apparent Stereotype Confirmation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (1): 10–18.
Smith, Richard H., Powell, Caitlin AJ, Combs, David JY, and Schurtz, David Ryan. 2009. “Exploring the when and why of schadenfreude.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (4): 530–46.
Sterling, Bruce, and Gaertner, Samuel L.. 1984. “The Attribution of Arousal and Emergency Helping: A Bidirectional Process.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 20 (6): 586–96.
Stroud, Natalie Jomini. 2008. “Media Use and Political Predispositions: Revisiting the Concept of Selective Exposure.” Political Behavior 30 (3): 341–66.
Stürmer, Stefan, Snyder, Mark, and Omoto, Allen M.. 2005. “Prosocial Emotions and Helping: The Moderating Role of Group Membership.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88 (3): 532–46.
Vitaglione, Guy D., and Barnett, Mark A.. 2003. “Assessing a New Dimension of Empathy: Empathic Anger as a Predictor of Helping and Punishing Desires.” Motivation and Emotion 27 (4): 301–25.
Wang, Cynthia S., Ku, Gillian, Tai, Kenneth, and Galinsky, Adam D.. 2013. “Stupid Doctors and Smart Construction Workers: Perspective-Taking Reduces Stereotyping of Both Negative and Positive Targets.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 5 (4): 430–36.
Webster, Steven W. 2018. “It’s Personal: The Big Five Personality Traits and Negative Partisan Affect in Polarized US Politics.” American Behavioral Scientist 62 (1): 127–45.
Webster, Steven W., and Abramowitz, Alan I.. 2017. “The Ideological Foundations of Affective Polarization in the US Electorate.” American Politics Research 45 (4): 621–47.
Wilhelm, Mark Ottoni, and Bekkers, Rene. 2010. “Helping Behavior, Dispositional Empathic Concern, and the Principle of Care.” Social Psychology Quarterly 73 (1): 11–32.
Zaki, Jamil. 2014. “Empathy: A Motivated Account.” Psychological Bulletin 140 (6): 1608–47.
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Simas et al. Dataset

Supplementary materials

Simas et al. supplementary material
Online Appendix

 Word (1.2 MB)
1.2 MB

How Empathic Concern Fuels Political Polarization



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed