A Difference Between Democrats and Republicans – The Effects of Empathy on Political Interest

February 12th, 2010 by Ravi Iyer

Below is a simple little graph of yourmorals.org data that I thought would be worth posting.  Interest in politics is positively correlated with empathic concern in liberals/democrats and not in conservatives/republicans.  It’s somewhat self-evident in posts like this, or debates about the role of empathy from either the Democratic or Republican side.

Democrats could learn something from this graph.  Perhaps inspiring empathy in the electorate will motivate liberals to be politically active more than conservatives?  and how exactly might one appeal to empathy?  Perhaps by pushing poverty reduction programs, increases in foreign non-military aid, or putting a human face on health care reform?


btw, empathic concern is measured using Davis’ Interpersonal Reactivity Index which contains questions like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”  The next obvious step is to manipulate empathy and see if it has any impact on political behavior, or at least on the intention to engage in political behavior, as there is only so much that can be inferred from this correlation.  Still, it’s a promising research lead with interesting potential applications toward inspiring political interest.

– Ravi Iyer

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9 Responses to “A Difference Between Democrats and Republicans – The Effects of Empathy on Political Interest”

  1. Jason Russell says:

    As I mentioned in my comment about income inequality I’m a fan of Professor Haidt, YourMorals, and CivilPolitics.

    I’d like to explain something that’s been troubling me for a long time now about some aspects of the work. The blog entry about empathy is an example.

    Mind you, I’m not necessarily saying I disagree with the blog entry. All I’m saying is that there’s an element to the overall work that doesn’t seem quite right to me. It has to do with some of the analysis and interpretation of statistics. And as I also mentioned in my other comment, I’m no statistician, so maybe I’m missing some key point which would make this comment moot.

    Anyway, the thing that bothers me is that I’m not convinced the chart about empathy really offers an apples-to-apples comparison of liberals and conservatives. I’m not convinced that ANY comparison of liberals and conservatives which relies on a single trait is apples-to-apples.

    If you were to ask liberals and conservatives to weight each of the five moral foundations in importance such that the total weight of all five together added up to 100, I suspect you might get scores something like 35, 35, 10, 10, 10 for liberals (or even 42.5, 42.5, 5, 5, 5) and 20, 20, 20, 20, 20 for conservatives.

    I do not believe that a h/c score of 35 for liberals and 20 for conservatives means conservatives care less about h/c than liberals do. I sincerely doubt a conservative feels any less pain than a liberal does when someone close to them, or even someone they don’t know, is sick, hurt, or dies. I also doubt a conservative feels any less joy than a liberal does when someone close to them is happy. I do not believe that a conservative is any less affected by the plight of others, or by an emotional movie for that matter, than a liberal is. In fact, I believe conservatives feel pain, pleasure, and yes, even empathy, toward others just as much as liberals do.

    As you said here


    “These are not just data points, but actual human beings.” On an absolute, apples-to-apples scale, I believe conservatives are actual human beings who are every bit as sensitive, compassionate, and empathic as liberals are.

    Three illustrative anecdotes:

    1) Coincidentally, while I was writing this note my daughter who is conservative called me from college to tell me how emotionally difficult it was for her to see the dire straits the kids were in at a children’s hospital where she had just volunteered.

    2) Personally, I know I tear up at sentimental movies and TV shows as much, or more, than the next person. Heck, I get teary eyed at Hallmark commercials. My mom, also conservative, is the same way.

    3) If empathy were to be measured by who gives more of their time, money, and blood then the graph in your blog piece might very well be a mirror image of the one you presented.

    Each egg in a basket holding two eggs contributes about half the weight relative to the total. Each egg in a basket holding five eggs contributes about one fifth the total weight. It does not follow from this, however, that each egg in the five-egg basket weighs less, or matters less, than each egg in the two egg basket. But when the baskets are filled with moral foundations instead of eggs it seems you’re saying it DOES follow. That just does not seem right to me.

    I think a measure of any single trait shows the relative importance of that trait to the total moral system – to the whole human being – of the person answering the questionnaire, and that’s all. I do not think that lower scores for conservatives means they value a particular trait LESS than liberals do.

    I do not think the reverse is true for liberals. Hear me out…..

    For the most part the “other three” moral foundations – along with any traits that might be associated with them – are outside of liberal morality. As Professor Haidt said in his TED talk, liberals reject the other three foundations.

    This is borne out by my experience over the years of watching, listening, and participating in political discussions. With regard to the three conservative foundations, it does not seem that liberal sentiment is “I agree that they are valuable, I just happen to think that the first two foundations are more valuable.” What seems more correct is that the liberal sentiment about those foundations is “Throughout all of human history they have been used only (or mostly) to oppress. They have no legitimate place in a moral society.”

    The conservative view of the two “liberal” foundations, on the other hand, is “Yes, those are indeed important. But these other three foundations are important as well.”

    I think any suggestion that conservatives “care less” about h/c, f/r, or any associated trait like empathy, does not reflect the reality of the situation, and is an incorrect – and even unfair – characterization of conservatives.

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    Jason…thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I would just say that all of this research is done on averages of groups and there are individuals (many, in fact) who break any research finding that is shared.

    I would say that some people have overall less moral feeling (e.g. psychopaths) and it isn’t all just balancing foundations against each other. And I think both research and everyday experience suggest that there are some kinds of empathy that liberals do feel more of (e.g. empathy for the distant poor) at a group level. However, conservatives do give more to charity and I think it’s quite possible that conservatives have more empathy for close others. For example, conservatives report more loving feelings toward family in our data and liberals report more loving feelings toward friends.


  3. Jason Russell says:

    I don’t mean to belabor this. And again, my education in statistics is limited so I realize I may be missing some important point(s).

    I am aware that it can be difficult to obtain truly representative data samples. Also, I’ve read some of the YourMorals blog entries on the subject. For example, Dr. Haidt’s entry entitled “Nationally Representative Data is (sometimes) Bad Data for Psychology,” and yours entitled “Sampling limitations and what you can deduce from YourMorals data.”

    But there’s an element of the analyses on YourMorals that I’d like to ask about because as far as I can tell it has not been discussed. This question is more or less an expansion of the ideas in my previous comment, and it truly is a question much more than it is any sort of critique. The expansion takes my question beyond just data analysis to a larger idea about the possibility of an underlying premise behind the discussion on YourMorals.org, and maybe even at CivilPolitics.org, which, if present, might be tilting the discussion in a particular direction.


    If the conservative morality is defined by all five foundations and if the liberal morality is defined (essentially) by two of those five, then isn’t any comparison between the two moralities really just a comparison between a set and a subset of itself? Aren’t you comparing unequal things as if they were equal? And if so, how is such a comparison meaningful?

    You might respond by saying you’re comparing the views of *people*, not moralities. But aren’t the people still answering the survey questions from within their own moralities? And from the perspective of moral foundations, isn’t the liberal morality a subset of the conservative morality? And even if it’s not a subset, aren’t the liberal and conservative moralities of widely different sizes and scopes? And if so, then doesn’t assessing the averages groups (i.e., of liberals and conservatives) “normalize” (I’m not sure of the right word) significant differences, essentially removing them from your data, and therefore from your assessments?

    A Venn diagram of the two moralities drawn from the perspective of moral foundations would represent liberalism as a small circle completely inside a larger circle representing conservatism. The conservative circle would be two and a half times the size of the smaller one. The moral, perceptual, and cognitive space that is defined by two foundations encompasses only a fraction of the space defined by five foundations. The liberal and conservative constructs are not equivalent, yet by taking averages of liberal and conservative survey respondents’ answers at face value it seems as if you are presuming that they are equivalent, and then you’re assessing your data based on that presumption.

    It seems to me that the different perspectives on issues regarding morals and politics between two-foundation and five foundation people is a bit like the different perspectives on issues regarding physics between a person who has studied algebra and a person who has studied calculus. You can’t really say that the perspective of the algebra student is not valid *for that student*, but you also can’t really say that that perspective is equivalent to the perspective of the calculus student. The same sort of difference exists between the perspectives of liberalism and conservatism. I wonder if this distinction is being missed in the analyses at YourMorals.org.

    I’ve taken several of the surveys. The surveys ask respondents to select from ranges that extend from, for example, “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” or from “very important” to “not important,” seemingly without any recognition that those ranges might be very different – in an algebra vs. calculus sort of way – depending on the depth and breadth of the moral, perceptual, and cognitive space the respondent inhabits.

    I understand the goal of science is to understand and to explain without passing judgment as to who is “right” and who is “wrong.” But I’m having a hard time figuring out how it is right to compare the views of the algebra student and the calculus student – or the two-foundation and the five-foundation moralities – as if they are equivalent-but-different when clearly they’re not.

    I just can’t help having a sneaking suspicion that the analyses might be based on a premise of equivalence among unequal things. And since the “things” we’re talking about are moralities, could it be that the analyses rest on a premise of moral relativism?

    At this point, let me say that I honestly believe that Moral Foundations Theory affords the most insightful analysis of the political divide, and greatest hope of bridging some of the divide, that has come along in quite a while; possibly decades. It is my fervent hope that the ideas continue to gain traction such that they eventually reach the tipping point – in the Malcolm Gladwell sense – and become part of America’s mainstream understanding of itself, and even of the world. I want you to understand that it is in that spirit, rather than from a spirit of trying to find fault with the ideas, that I offer my comments to your blog entries.

    My above rationale is not the only reason I suspect moral relativism could be “built in” to some of the analyses on YourMorals. I also suspect it because I sense a tone of moral relativism at times in some of the blog entries and comments throughout YourMorals.

    Some examples of this include Pete Ditto’s entry entitled “Are Liberals and Conservatives Polar Opposites or Mirror Images?”, Dr. Haidt’s Yin/Yang, Shiva/Vishnu, and “Let go of for and against” concepts in his TED talk, and Brad Jones’ response to my comment to his “Attitudes Toward Inequality “ entry, in which he says “Hopefully I won’t do too much violence to your blind-squirrel metaphor by proposing an extension. Perhaps, liberals are the blind squirrels and conservatives are deaf. Alone, neither would survive long, but working together we can accomplish more than we ever could apart.”

    I know there’s truth in all of those things. I’m not suggesting that anyone at YourMorals is doing anything other than seeking the truth. What I am saying is that observations like those, while not false, may also not tell the WHOLE truth. For example, the mirror image argument in Pete Ditto’s piece is based on surface observations only. It does not delve into the rationales that exist behind those observations, yet it’s in those rationales where the major, fundamental, core value differences lie. The fact that liberals and conservatives APPEAR to be mirror images of one another on the surface does not mean that they actually are where it counts. The mirror image observation seems to argue for moral relativism by looking only at the surface and ignoring the part that counts.

    I realize that one of the goals of YourMorals is to delve into the rationales behind various political and moral viewpoints such that the bedrock upon which they stand is seen and understood. I also realize that science doesn’t take sides. Impartiality is at the core of the discipline. So I appreciate that there’s a strong element of a Catch-22 style, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum involved with how you present your findings. If you don’t go to every length possible to be as impartial as possible then you might appear to be taking sides. But on the other hand, here I am suggesting that the way you’re implementing that impartiality is itself a form of taking sides. You just can’t win. This might be an issue for which there is no solution. But that doesn’t mean that my ideas are without merit either.

    In summary, the way I see it there are at least three ideas which argue against the notion of presenting liberalism and conservatism as equivalent-but-different (or maybe they’re three variations around a single central theme.)

    The first idea is that since the two foundations of liberalism are a subset of the five foundations of conservatism any suggestion of equivalence between the two moralities is, essentially, a suggestion that a set is equivalent to a subset of itself.

    The second idea is a consequence of the first. By presuming equality between unequal things, it appears that the analyses of YourMorals might be “normalizing” the unequal things in a way that removes at least some of the differences between then, and then assesses the remaining differences as if the unlike things actually are alike. If this is true, then I’m not sure of the accuracy, or at least the completeness, of some of the analyses. An incomplete story may not be a true story.

    The third idea is probably the most important. It just might be the crux of the entire matter. It is this: If a Yin/Yang style relationship exists among the moral foundations it exists between the first two foundations and the last three. That is, it exists wholly within the five-foundation morality. Indeed, the entire basis of that morality is the trade-off, or balance, between the autonomy and freedom of the individual (represented by the first two foundations) and the societal constraints that are necessary to ensure that every individual may exercise their autonomy to the greatest extent possible without impinging on other individuals’ exact same freedoms (represented by the last three foundations.) **The trade-off, or balance, between liberty and constraint is the essence of the five-foundation morality. The five-foundation morality IS Yin/Yang.** So the suggestion that a Yin/Yang style balance exists between the five-foundation morality and the two-foundation morality misrepresents both moralities as well as the relationship between them.

    To be abundantly clear, and at the risk of tiresome over-redundancy, I’ll repeat that I am not a statistician and I am not a social scientist. I’m just a person who enjoys learning about the origins and history of political ideas. There may be major flaws in my thinking that I don’t see. But from the way I look at things it seems to me that there might be an unseen premise of equality between unequal things behind much of the discussion on YourMorals and CivilPolitics, and when those things are moralities, the premise amounts to moral relativism.

  4. Ravi Iyer says:


    Again, thanks for your deep thoughts and interest. I think you have an important point that morality can be seen as a zero-sum tradeoff and so therefore a relative low level of moral concern for harm in a larger pie might be equivalent to a reportedly higher level in a larger pie.

    However, I do think there is enough convergent evidence in both society and in other research to support the idea that many liberals really do care more about harm concerns. I’m not saying that’s good or bad and indeed, many people might say that liberals are overly conerned about harm of oppressed groups, to the point of irrationality, and that it costs lives and well-being in the end, due to lack of concern about other important things. I suppose my main response would be to say that I personally (and this may be odd for someone in my field to say) don’t think any psychology study really proves anything. Rather, I think of studies as parables that show what could be occurring. It is only when psychology results converge with our experiences of reality that we get those aha moments. Studies rarely convince people of things that they don’t already know deep down. And I’d say that the main moral foundations 5 vs. 2 foundation morality finding is one such finding, where the study wouldn’t be nearly as compelling, if it didn’t illuminate something that is mirrored in society in many more ways.

    That’s just my opinion though and I’m sure many of my colleagues might disagree. Again, thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Ravi Iyer says:

    and btw, I would also say that I admit guilt to the charge of moral relativism. At some level, I believe one has to be a moral relativist to study other people’s morality open mindedly. That being said, it is certainly true that moral relativism is it’s own kind of bias.

  6. joeedh says:

    This post is flawed. Moderate conservatives, at least, are very empathetic–remember the neocons’ famous phrase “liberals mugged by reality.” That’s why a lot of them aren’t involved in politics; politicians care more about inputs and empathy then output and results. It’s incredibly discouraging when all the “liberal” politicians produce exactly the same results as the “conservatives”, except they make themselves feel better in the process. It’s pretty disgusting.

    The tribalism of recent years doesn’t help, either; it’s not fun being told you should vote Democrat “because that’s the tolerant, wonderful party”–as if moderate, center-right liberal Republicans don’t even exist. There is an intense sorting pressure at play here.

  7. joeedh says:

    Oh. I forgot to mention the opposite example of being told you have to vote Republican because “their the conservative/center-right party.” That last comment is a bit too partisan, I apologize.

  8. Ravi Iyer says:

    to add to your criticism, conservatives do give more to charity according to Albert Brooks’ analysis. As I study it more, I think there may be different kinds of empathy at work. A more targeted empathy and a more general diffuse empathy. There are hints of that in our data. For example, liberals are more loving toward friends, while conservatives are more loving towards family.

  9. stan says:

    Ravi is making the same mistake that Haidt often makes and that is accepting as true the liberal belief that politics and government programs are a way to measure empathy.

    “See how much we care. We support the use of guns to take money from other people and give it to our political supporters who will give a small part of it to poor people. If you oppose our scheme, you don’t care about poor people.”

    Moral immaturity.

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