New research published in the journal Emotion offers evidence of a prevailing stereotype that Democrats are more compassionate than Republicans. Their findings further suggest that Democrats exaggerate these differences more strongly than Republicans.
“There has been plenty of press coverage on the growing political polarization in the United States. People appear increasingly hostile and less likely to want to engage socially with their ideological opponents. We wondered whether people might misrepresent the characteristics of their typical ideological outgroup member on an important moral emotion – compassion,” said study author Julian A. Scheffer, a PhD candidate and member of the Empathy and Moral Psychology (EMP) Lab at Pennsylvania State University.
Compassion is a theme that comes up frequently in the discussion of American politics. “For example,” Scheffer and his colleagues wrote in their study, “debate around immigration policy seems to stem in part from Democrats characterizing Republicans as being “cold-hearted” for trying to hinder immigration from war-torn areas, and from Republicans characterizing Democrats as “bleeding-hearts” who allow their emotions to blind them into supporting the immigration of perceived outside threats.”
And still, it is unclear whether the proclaimed differences in compassion between Democrats and Republicans are real or whether they are exaggerated by a stereotype. As Scheffer and his colleagues say, these types of misconceptions are harmful because they increase the separation between political parties and may hinder cooperation between groups.
In a series of five studies, the researchers asked respondents to rate “the average Democrat” and “the average Republican” when it comes to compassion. They then had subjects rate their own levels of compassion. The researchers next analyzed the data to see if a stereotype would be revealed where respondents exaggerated the differences in compassion between Democrats and Republicans, when compared to actual group differences in compassion.
The first three studies were conducted among online samples of American adults recruited in 2015 and showed a similar pattern of findings. Overall, participants consistently rated the average Democrat as more compassionate than the average Republican, suggesting a stereotype was in play.
This stereotype did not match up to respondents’ self-reported compassion — there was no consistent difference between the two groups when it came to their compassion self-ratings. This suggests that the stereotype may not reflect actual differences in compassion.
Notably, the findings also revealed that Democrat respondents were more likely to show this stereotype exaggeration than Republican respondents.
The researchers then conducted two field studies to see if these results would be replicated among a more politically-active sample. These studies were conducted among Iowa voters during the 2016 Caucus and Pennsylvania voters during the U.S. Presidential Election.
Again, the same stereotype surfaced, with Democrats being rated as more compassionate compared to Republicans. And, once more, Democrat respondents were found to exaggerate the extent that the average Democrat is more compassionate than the average Republican.
However, a new finding also emerged. This time, Republicans exaggerated the extent that Democrats were less compassionate than the average Republican. In the field sample, then, supporters of either party appeared to show stereotype exaggeration that worked in the favor of their own political party. The researchers propose that this could be because the field samples were politically-engaged and may have felt more compelled to protect their own group.
“Overall, participants stereotyped the average Democrat/liberal as more compassionate than the average Republican/conservative, but these stereotypes exaggerated group differences on the self-report measure. If people knew that their ideological outgroups were not as different from them as they perceive, then they may be more willing to understand their views, which may be guided by the same moral emotions as their own,” Scheffer told PsyPost.
The researchers acknowledge that the field studies were collected amid a particular political climate and the findings may not generalize to other political contexts.
“We recognize that the current political climate has drastically evolved from 2016 when this work was conducted, so there may be limitations to how well we can generalize these findings to the present,” Scheffer said.
“We also assessed compassion using self-report rather than measuring compassionate responses towards specific targets that may have political relevance. Lastly, it remains an open question of whether these misperceptions lead to intolerance of political outgroups, and whether highlighting that these misperceptions exaggerate reality would help alleviate this intolerance.”
Still, the research offers intriguing preliminary findings.
“During this politically tense period, we think this work provides some context for how people may have become so divided over time,” Scheffer explained. “If people learn that their political outgroups are more like themselves than once thought, it may lead to more effective intergroup dialogue. Otherwise, like the growing polarization over the past few decades, these exaggerations may ultimately fester over time.”
The study, “Stereotypes about Compassion Across the Political Spectrum”, Julian A. Scheffer, C. Daryl Cameron, Stephanie McKee, Eliana Hadjiandreou, and Aaron Scherer.