Do conservatives really have an empathy deficit? This is what social science says

A new study on pandemic behavior finds another link between ideology and empathy

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 16, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Protesters rally against a mask mandate, many showing support for US President Donald Trump, in Las Vegas, Nevada on August 22, 2020. (BRIDGET BENNETT/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters rally against a mask mandate, many showing support for US President Donald Trump, in Las Vegas, Nevada on August 22, 2020. (BRIDGET BENNETT/AFP via Getty Images)

It's the "unvaccinated and conspiracy-theory minded with anger against authority issues" guy who deliberately exposes his family to COVID. It's the defiantly maskless Republican attending a 2020 Trump rally (who dies of the virus shortly after). It's the "Proud Boy to rank-and-file supporters" gathering at an anti-vaccine "Defeat the Mandates" protest. We've spent nearly three years now, witnessing and often suffering from the behaviors of conservatives who refused to abide by COVID guidelines — or even acknowledge the crisis. And the question that keeps coming up around family dinner tables and in heated exchanges at big box stores is — Do these people just not care about anybody else?

If you're looking to bolster that particular argument, you might want to look at the new research published in Discover Science and Health exploring the link between risky pandemic behavior and conservatism. The data, according to the authors of "Political Ideology and Pandemic Lifestyles," has indeed "confirmed that political conservatism is associated with lower levels of empathy relative to their more liberal counterparts." But let's not get too self-congratulatory about our presumed moral superiority just yet, progressives.

The increasing polarization of America has undoubtedly led to an uptick in what can only be described as publicly condoned and politically incentivized heartlessness. It's never been just about social distancing. It's been about immigration and education and abortion and student loans. Consider Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's September stunt of dumping a group of migrants in Martha's Vineyard, an act Democratic state Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Massachusetts could only describe as "inhumane." Little wonder that DeSantis has also opposed a "social emotional learning" education curriculum that includes focus on cooperation and empathy-building as a form of "indoctrination."

The idea that conservatives are inherently less empathetic feels like a case that easily builds itself. You mean to say that people who brought you "F**k your feelings" might not care about … your feelings? That checks out. Plenty of research into the phenomenon in the last few years seems to back that up. A 2018 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that asked "Are Liberals and Conservatives Equally Motivated to Feel Empathy Toward Others?" concluded that "On average and across samples, liberals wanted to feel more empathy and experienced more empathy than conservatives did."

And when that "Political Ideology and Pandemic Lifestyles" study looked into a variety of different factors that might correlate with riskier behavior, it did find a revealing trio of variables. Researchers observed that "People who care less about the welfare of others, hold more authoritarian belief systems, and define the pandemic as less threatening to themselves and to the broader society also tend to report less engagement in healthy pandemic lifestyles." 

"We are not saying that political conservatives inherently lack empathy."

But as the paper's lead author Terrence D. Hill, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, tells Salon, "We are not saying that political conservatives inherently lack empathy or inherently authoritarian or inherently skeptical of the pandemic. Some political conservatives score high on empathy, low on authoritarianism, and are deeply concerned about the pandemic. Before the pandemic, some studies showed that political conservatism was associated with higher levels of disgust sensitivity (e.g., concern about diseases). These pre-pandemic patterns were seemingly reversed during the pandemic when political elites decided to politicize the pandemic." He adds that "We should also note that religiosity, which is higher among political conservatives, is associated with greater empathy." 

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Empathy is a slippery and subjective concept. That same 2018 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study that noted that people "who tend to be more conservative express less empathic concern for others" also found that liberals and conservatives alike report more empathy toward members of their own "in-groups" than outsiders. (Self-described liberals do, however, tend to have more expansive circles.) And in the 2016 collection "The Psychology of Political Polarization," a chapter on "the expanse of empathy" reported that "Liberalism is correlated with self-reported empathy." Defining oneself as empathetic doesn't necessarily translate into being empathetic, especially towards people of a different point view.

But even if a variety of research seems to indicate that conservatives do believe and behave less empathetically than liberals, we can't ignore signs that we have in recent decades tilted toward becoming a less empathetic species overall. In a noted 2010 study on empathy in college students, social psychologist Sara Konrath found "sharply dropping" empathy among young people, along with a rise in narcissism. Konrath's work is particularly interesting, because she's come at the issue not from a specifically political perspective but a social one, paying close attention to the escalating stress and burnout endemic among youth. It's harder to have space in your heart for others when your own resources are dwindling.

Research data can be shaped in a variety of directions to tell a variety of stories, and Konrath hopes we can go deeper. "It seems like most scientists are studying empathy as a personality trait," she says. "For example, asking people general questions such as: 'I am often concerned about people less fortunate than me.' Although that is a scientifically validated way of measuring empathy, there are other ways too. I would like to see more research that examines people's emotional/empathic responses in the moment to others who are in need or in distress. It's possible that people would respond differently in the moment than they claim in a more abstract way." She also wonders, "There may be a larger correlation between political ideological and empathy when participants are first reminded of ('primed with') their political beliefs." 

We can look at the news about abortion access or insurrections and draw our own conclusions about who holds the larger deficit of empathy in America today. We can certainly not be surprised that conservatives have behaved with less concern for the collective well-being over the course of this pandemic. But we also have to acknowledge our own biases and limitations, our own tribalism and schadenfreude. As Konrath says, "The issue is more complex than what we may see reflected in media depictions."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Conservatism Covid-19 Empathy Explainer Health Neurology Psychology Sociology