Shivering Liberals, Parched Conservatives

Imagine you’re reading a newspaper and you come across an article about a woman lost in a nearby forest. She had hiked several miles to a small cabin for a bit of escape from her stressful work life, and a freak spring snowstorm dropped eight inches of powder overnight as the temperature plummeted. This forest is difficult to navigate under the best of conditions, and the woman is a fairly inexperienced hiker. Her family and friends are concerned because she didn’t pack food or water for a long stay, and she dressed for mild weather. Rangers are combing the forest.

How do you feel about this woman as you read her story? You don’t know her personally, but it’s not hard to imagine wandering lost through a snowy forest. What are your first thoughts, and concerns, as you ponder her plight?

Well, it probably depends on a number of things—some seemingly irrelevant. Imagine again that you’re reading the newspaper account, but now you’re dressed in flannels and sitting in front of a crackling fire. Or, by contrast, picture yourself reading the hiker’s story while standing at a frigid bus stop. Will your situation influence the empathy you feel for this stranger?

Or what about her values and politics? What if the story mentions in passing that the hiker was a well-known gay rights activist, or that she was a staffer for a staunchly conservative republican lawmaker? Will these facts shape your thinking and emotions?

We like to think that, as human beings, we sympathize with anyone who is suffering or in danger. But is this true? A provocative new study suggests that we may not be nearly as connected and empathic as we might hope—that indeed our emotional outpouring for others is strictly limited by our own immediate situation and our own cherished values. University of Michigan psychological scientists Ed O’Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth used a story very much like the hiker’s tale to measure people’s visceral reactions to another human’s misfortune in two experiments.

They ran the first study in Ann Arbor, Michigan in January, where the median temp is about 6 degrees F, with lows in the negative double-digits. As with the hypothetical above, they actually did interview some people while they were waiting for a bus, outside in the cold, while they interviewed others in the warmth of the library. Previous research has shown that it’s very difficult, when we’re in one visceral state, to take the perspective of someone in the opposite visceral state. So, for example, it’s hard to imagine someone being satiated—even our future selves—when we are ravenous. The scientists took advantage of the Michigan winter to explore how cold might similarly shape attitudes toward strangers.

The volunteers read the news account, some at the bus stop and others in the library. Some read about the gay rights activist, others about the Republican staffer. Male volunteers read about male hikers; women about female hikers. Afterward, all the volunteers answered a series of questions that required getting inside the head of the unfortunate hiker: What was the worst part of his or her experience in the woods? What was his biggest regret? Not taking water? Food? Extra clothing? How hungry is she now? How thirsty? How cold? The volunteers also described their own political values, and rated their similarity to the hiker.

The idea was to see if and how these irrelevant factors shaped their judgments of another person’s internal state of mind, and the results were clear. Being cold did indeed influence the volunteers’ judgments—but only if they were thinking about someone just like themselves. That is, when it was a shivering conservative thinking about another conservative—or a shivering liberal thinking about another liberal—in these cases the volunteers imagined that cold was the hiker’s main concern, not food or water. They shared the hiker’s regret in not taking along warm clothing. But being cold did not influence liberals’ empathy for conservatives stranded in the woods, nor conservatives’ feelings for liberals in the same dilemma.

This is a bit distressing, but a second study reinforced the main finding. In this experiment, instead of comparing cold and toasty volunteers, the scientists fed some of the volunteers crackers and other salty foods to make them very thirsty, while allowing others to drink water. They then all read the same story as before. The researchers expected that the parched subjects would project their own thirst only on to hikers who shared their political values, and that’s exactly what they found. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, even very thirsty Republicans could not feel the thirst of liberals, and vice versa. In other words, being different appears to trump even strong visceral feelings like thirst and cold.

Why would this be? Everyone uses stereotypes to judge others, often unfairly, but thirst and cold have nothing to do with political stereotypes. Nobody thinks, Democrats drink more water, or Republicans wear warmer clothes. Knowing someone’s politics should not affect how cold or thirsty we think they are—yet these results suggest that it does. And if this is the case, O’Brien and Ellsworth say, then it appears that our judgments of people unlike ourselves are much more automatic and deeply rooted in the psyche—and therefore much more resistant to change. In these deeply partisan times, this is not welcome news.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, devotes a chapter to the visceral heuristics that shape our judgments and decisions, often in irrational ways. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post and Scientific American Mind.

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