In the context of the rising xenophobia expressed by — mostly — Republican presidential contenders, this new study from the University of Toronto is certainly apropos: It finds that empathy towards a political opponent’s moral views is a more effective path towards political persuasion. I think it highlights the power of being able to step outside yourself and put yourself into the mindset – the emotions, thoughts and values — of another; especially someone with whom you disagree strongly.
A summary of the study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin pointed out that if opponents really care about making even modest in-roads with each other, they’ll pay attention to this research: It showed that arguments based on a political opponent’s moral principles, rather than one’s own, have a much better chance of success.
“We were trying to figure out ways to overcome the polarization,” said Mathew Feinberg, one of the researchers. A series of experiments had liberals and conservatives come up with arguments of their own for someone of the opposite political viewpoint.
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 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 purity-based arguments 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.
“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,” suggests Feinberg. A good point.