April 5, 2012
By Maia Szalavitz
“The Republicrats are the problem. It is time to start voting for anyone but the political elite.” –KTRN
Shakespeare asked rhetorically whether Christians and Jews are not “hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer?” The same can be said of Republicans and Democrats, but if you ask people on opposite sides of the aisle to try to empathize with one another, they tend to consider their rivals as not equally human.
That’s not a mere observation of election-year political antics, but a finding from scientific research. Led by Ed O’Brien, scientists from the University of Michigan crafted a study on inter-party empathy based on prior data on the emotion, which finds that our ability to empathize is greatly affected not only by whom we’re trying to empathize with, but also by our own physical and emotional states.
Physical states, especially, are difficult to transcend. If you’ve ever packed for a tropical vacation in the dead of winter and had difficulty imagining yourself basking on a warm beach when it’s freezing at home, you’ve experienced the challenge most people face when trying to take the perspective of another — or even of your own future self. When our visceral state is overwhelming, we tend to project the same feeling onto everyone else: if I’m cold, then you must be cold too.
Studies also find that thirsty people perceive others as being equally dehydrated, and those who feel frightened similarly think everyone else must be afraid too. Even exam cheaters project their own willingness to cut corners on fellow test takers.
But this kind of empathy doesn’t always extend to everyone. History is filled with examples of warriors who were brutal to their enemies, but kind to their comrades. Biologically speaking, the hormone most associated with empathy — oxytocin — has been found to increase people’s feelings of warmth and generosity toward their friends and family while simultaneously increasing prejudice against outsiders.