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Empathy is key to political persuasion, shows new research

November 16, 2015

Toron­to, ON – It’s not news that lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives are lousy at win­ning each oth­er over.

But if they real­ly care about mak­ing even mod­est in-roads with each oth­er, they’ll pay atten­tion to research show­ing that argu­ments based on a polit­i­cal oppo­nen­t’s moral prin­ci­ples, rather than one’s own, have a much bet­ter chance of suc­cess.

Researchers Matthew Fein­berg and Robb Willer decid­ed to inves­ti­gate the idea after watch­ing the increas­ing polar­iza­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

“We were try­ing to fig­ure out ways to over­come the polar­iza­tion,” says Prof. Fein­berg, who teach­es orga­ni­za­tion­al behav­iour at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment. Dr. Willer is a soci­ol­o­gist at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty.

The pair ran a series of exper­i­ments that had par­tic­i­pants come up with argu­ments of their own for some­one of the oppo­site polit­i­cal view­point.   A the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work of val­ues was used to define what qual­i­fied as a lib­er­al or con­ser­v­a­tive argu­ment.

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.

“Most peo­ple are not very good at appeal­ing to oth­er people’s val­ues,” says Prof. Fein­berg.

Lib­er­als asked to appeal to con­ser­v­a­tives for sup­port of same-sex mar­riage had only a 9% suc­cess rate in devel­op­ing argu­ments based on con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues of loy­al­ty, author­i­ty or puri­ty (such as, “our fel­low cit­i­zens deserve to stand along­side us …”). Only 8% of con­ser­v­a­tives came up with lib­er­al-friend­ly argu­ments about why Eng­lish should be adopt­ed as the offi­cial lan­guage of the Unit­ed States, based on prin­ci­ples of fair­ness and pro­tec­tion from harm (e.g. “there will be less dis­crim­i­na­tion”).

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.

The study’s find­ings are time­ly as Cana­di­an polit­i­cal oper­a­tives ana­lyze results of their recent fed­er­al elec­tion and par­ty orga­niz­ers in the U.S. con­sid­er how to build bridges with vot­ers for that coun­try’s elec­tion in 2016.

“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 Prof. Fein­berg.

The paper was recent­ly pub­lished online in Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy Bul­letin.

For the lat­est think­ing on busi­ness, man­age­ment and eco­nom­ics from the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, vis­it

The Rot­man School of Man­age­ment is locat­ed in the heart of Canada’s com­mer­cial and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal and is part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, one of the world’s top 20 research uni­ver­si­ties. The Rot­man School fos­ters a new way to think that enables our grad­u­ates to tack­le today’s glob­al busi­ness chal­lenges.  For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it


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Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
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