Politics May Get in the Way of Empathy, Research Shows

THURSDAY, April 12 (HealthDay News) -- A new study finds that empathy -- the ability to understand and share someone else's feelings -- vanishes when people have different political views.

U.S. researchers asked the study participants to read a short story about a person -- either a Democrat or a Republican -- who went hiking in winter and got lost with no food, water or extra clothes. People who had the same politics as the fictional hiker felt empathy for the hiker, while those with opposing political views did not.

The study appears in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"Political values are emotionally charged. People get really fired up," study co-author Ed O'Brien, of the University of Michigan, said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science.

The findings suggest that people are less likely to feel empathy for others they regard as very different from themselves, the researchers said.

For example, people may be less opposed to torture if it's used on people who are nothing like them, O'Brien said. Or people may have little sympathy for the homeless because they can't relate to their situation.

"Even if you're feeling shared pain, you may not let that connection affect your opinions of people who are very, very different from you," O'Brien added.

More information

Utah State University has more about teaching empathy.

SOURCE: Association for Psychological Science, news release, April 2, 2012

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