Liberals want to experience more empathy and tend to be more empathetic than conservatives, according to new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“We know that liberals and conservatives differ in their support for social policy issues, but there is an ongoing debate whether they fundamentally differ in cognitive, motivational, and emotional aspects,” said study author Yossi Hasson of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“As a researcher who investigates empathy in various intergroup contexts I was interested to examine how political ideology relates to empathy which play an important role in our social life. This question has been difficult to resolve by previous studies due to methodological constraints and common use of ideologically-biased targets (that are either liberal or conservative-leaning),” Hasson explained.

“To overcome such limitations, our study included several unique features:”

  • “Whereas previous studies used targets that, at least in some cases, were potentially ideologically-biased, we used targets that should be equally relevant to both liberals and conservatives. Specifically, we examined reactions to people in need who were liberals or conservatives to ensure that some targets would be perceived as ingroup members and other targets would be perceived as outgroup members by both liberal and conservative participants. In addition, we used ideologically-neutral targets as a comparison group.”
  • “Whereas other studies examined political ideology and differences in experienced empathy, we examined whether liberals and conservatives differ in their motivation to feel empathy, their experienced empathy and their tendency to help others (As far as we know, no other study has simultaneously assessed these three constructs that are likely to jointly determine how people treat one another).”
  • “To draw inferences about political ideology beyond a particular political context, we conducted the study in three social and cultural contexts — in the United States, Germany, and Israel — that differ in political climate, cultural background, intergroup relations, key ideological debates, and emotional norms.”

The study included a total of 1,046 participants and assessed their empathy by having them read a fake newspaper article about protesters who were injured during an overcrowded demonstration. The protesters were either described as liberals, conservatives, or (non-partisan) local residents.

The researchers found that liberals tended to want to feel more empathy and reported feeling more empathy towards others than conservatives. In the United States and Germany, liberals were more likely to want to help the protesters by donating money for the medical treatment. But both liberals and conservatives felt more empathy for their political allies.

“The takeaway message is that political ideology is associated with the motivation to feel empathy in two parallel ways – one that emphasizes the differences between liberals and conservatives, and another that emphasizes the similarities between the two political groups,” Hasson told PsyPost.

“On the one hand, liberals, compared to conservatives, want to feel more empathy toward others regardless of the targets’ political identity (either liberals, conservatives or non-political groups). On the other hand, both liberals and conservatives wanted to feel less empathy toward outgoup members compared to members of their ingroup or an ideologically-neutral group.”

The study, like all research, has some limitations.

“We cannot infer any causal influence of political ideology on motivated empathy,” Hasson explained. “Although we suggest that value-based goals and social needs may explain the relationship between the two constructs, it is still unclear what factors or processes are responsible for the apparent relationship.”

“In addition, all the measures used in this study were based on self-report. Although such measures have proven to be valid, participants may have responded according to how they would like or expect to appear.”

The study, “Are Liberals and Conservatives Equally Motivated to Feel Empathy Toward Others?“, was authored by Yossi Hasson, Maya Tamir, Kea S. Brahms, J. Christopher Cohrs, and Eran Halperin.