Can Empathy Towards Your Opponent's Political Views Alter Them?

Our current political climate is marked by the rising xenophobia expressed by nearly all the Republican presidential contenders. Given that, a new study from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management is very apropos: It finds that demonstrating empathy towards a political opponent's views -- particularly the moral core of their positions -- is a more effective path towards political persuasion; towards more movement towards your own.

I think this research underscores the benefit of being able to step outside yourself and put yourself into the mindset -- the emotions, thoughts and values -- of another person. Especially what that is someone with whom you disagree strongly. But can that help bridge emotionally-charged political differences?

A summary of the study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin argues that if opponents really care about making even modest in-roads with each other, they should pay attention to this research. It found that arguments based on a political opponent's moral principles, rather than one's own, have a much better chance of success.

In the series of experiments, liberals and conservatives were asked to come up with arguments of their own for someone of the opposite political viewpoint. "We were trying to figure out ways to overcome the polarization," said Mathew Feinberg, one of the researchers.

The results showed that both groups were extremely poor at developing arguments that would appeal to their political opposite, even when specifically asked to do so. Worse, some participants in both camps actually attacked the morality of those they'd been asked to convince.

But -- and here's the unexpected part -- appealing to core principles of the opposite political persuasion appeared to help. For example, conservatives were more inclined to support universal health care when presented with the argument that more uninsured people might lead to more disease spread. Liberals showed an uptick in support for higher military spending when shown an argument based on the principle that the military and the employment opportunities it provides help to reduce inequality.

These are small examples. But, Feinberg suggests, "Instead of alienating the other side and just repeating your own sense of morality, start thinking about how your political opposition thinks and see if you can frame messages that fit with that thought process."

Good luck with that!

But, as a philosopher once said, "One must remain hopeful...despite the evidence!"

dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., writes the blog, Progressive Impact and is director of the Center for Progressive Development. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.