Science Proves Empathy Could Change The Entire Debate About Refugees

A little political empathy goes a long way.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama gave a strong message at the G20 economic summit Monday, condemning the anti-refugee responses of Republican governors and reaffirming that the United States would continue to welcome Syrian refugees into the country after ISIS attacks in Paris.

"When I heard political leaders suggest that there would be a religious test for which a person who's fleeing a warn-torn country is admitted... that's shameful," Obama said. "That's not American. That's not who we are. We don't have religious tests to our compassion."

But if he was hoping to win the hearts and minds of Republican adversaries with his speech, he may have used exactly the wrong rhetoric.

According to new research published in this month's Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Obama would have a better chance of building consensus if he appealed to conservative values (e.g., "Let's not turn our backs on the American ideals of freedom and inclusivity") rather than calling adversaries "shameful."

This may seem obvious, but it remains nearly impossible to do.

"People can’t easily see past their own moral reason for taking a position," Robb Willer, a professor of sociology at Stanford University and coauthor of the new study, told The Huffington Post.

Previous sociological research has found that conservatives and liberals have different moral profiles, Willer explained. Liberals tend to endorse values like equality, fairness and protecting vulnerable people from harm. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more likely to value patriotism, group loyalty, respect for authority and moral purity.

"Liberals tend to make arguments in terms of their own moral values, even when they know they’re talking to conservatives," Willer said. "And conservatives do the same."

These tendencies held true in Willer's study, which asked participants to craft a convincing argument to change the mind of a political opponent on a polarizing issue, such as military spending or same-sex marriage.

Participants did an exceedingly poor job of winning over their political foes. Some participants crafted arguments grounded in their own morality, rather than in the morality of their opponents. Others outright insulted their opponents' morality, despite being specifically tasked with crafting empathetic arguments.

When researchers flipped the script, however, and presented their own scientifically targeted moral arguments to study participants, the recipients found them much more appealing.

Liberals, for example, were unmoved by a conventional patriotism arguments for military spending. When asked to consider how the military creates equal opportunities for the poor and for minorities, however, they tended to increase support for the issue.

Likewise, conservatives found a patriotism argument for same-sex marriage much more convincing than an argument pegged to equality and fairness.

Obama may feel a greater urgency to set the nation's message, rather than appeal to Republican voters, this late in his presidency. But 2016 presidential hopefuls might want to heed this advice during the upcoming general election.

For example, instead of appealing to Americans' morality by calling refugee refusal "shameful," perhaps a Democratic candidate should argue, as Fox News anchor Shepard Smith did, that "our unique experiment in freedom, tolerance, openness, and equality, is our gift to societies and peoples everywhere."

Smith went on to make a biblical reference to America as the "shining city on the hill," ticking off conservative lynchpins religion, patriotism and moral purity, while simultaneously making an argument for accepting refugees into the U.S.

"Come, join us," he said. "Enjoy a chance at the American dream." That's some cutting-edge moral psychology right there.

As for Willer, the larger takeaway is pretty straightforward. "When you fit the moral undergirding of an argument to people’s underlying moral values, it’s more persuasive to them," he said. "And this results in political persuasion on issues that we would normally think of as issues where it’s impossible to move people."

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