Empathy May Be Key to Change Political Opponents’ Minds

Man and woman arguing in officeLogical arguments might not sway a political adversary’s views, according to new research published in Social Psychology Bulletin. Instead, the study suggests empathizing with one another’s values can help political opponents construct arguments that work.

Empathy: Crucial to Political Success?

Researchers Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer hypothesized that an inability of conservatives and liberals to relate to each other’s values might explain the increased polarization in American politics.

To test this notion, they devised six trials addressing divisive political issues, such as same-sex marriage, military spending, universal health care, and making English the official language. The size and diversity of groups participating in each trial varied, but generally consisted of groups of around 100 men and women pre-screened for political ideology.

Researchers asked participants to construct political arguments in favor of their political beliefs. Researchers found that both conservatives and liberals performed poorly. Liberals were able to change conservatives’ minds about same-sex marriage in only 9% of trials. Conservatives convinced liberals to embrace English as the national language in just 8% of experiments.

Feinberg and Willer suggest the reason for this divide is the different values each political party uses to make political judgments. To test this, they presented participants with two more messages about divisive political issues.

In one trial, a message in favor of same-sex marriage highlighted the need for equality. Previous research suggests equality-based messages strongly resonate with liberals. A second message highlighted patriotism and group identity—two factors that previous research has shown conservatives typically embrace.

Conservatives were more likely to support same-sex marriage when arguments were framed in terms of principles conservatives gravitate toward, and liberals were more likely to support typically conservative issues—such as higher military spending—when they were framed to represent traditionally liberal values.

The Value of Understanding and Listening

The team got similar results on other divisive issues, suggesting that how political issues are framed can affect the degree to which a person is willing to change his or her mind. To frame an issue in a way that resonates with a political opponent, the researchers say empathy is key, and empathy requires more listening and less arguing. With a stronger sense of empathy, political adversaries can better understand each other’s values and perhaps even resolve contentious political debates.


  1. Empathy is key to political persuasion, shows new research. (2015, November 16). Retrieved from https://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/Connect/MediaCentre/NewsReleases/20151111.aspx
  2. Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2015). From gulf to bridge: When do moral arguments facilitate political influence? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(12), 1665-1681. doi:10.1177/0146167215607842
  3. Willer, R., & Feinberg, M. (2015, November 14). The key to political persuasion. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/opinion/sunday/the-key-to-political-persuasion.html?_r=0

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  • Georgia


    November 16th, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    If this is what it takes, then I would say that this group of presidential candidates have a looonnnggg way to go!

  • Davide


    November 17th, 2015 at 10:48 AM

    It is hard to be empathetic toward one that you so resolutely oppose their views. I think that it is fine to be nice and to be civil, but to empathize with them is like taking things out of focus for me. I guess I am not a great person because I do not see that I would ever have the ability to be that toward another that I was so opposed to their beliefs.

  • jonathan


    November 19th, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    Sort of sad, but those who are in politics never really strike me as the people who are going to be the most empathetic to other people. Even though they are the very ones who should be! But most of the time it seems that they are only concerned with their own thoughts and the things that are most important to them and everyone else can just go take a leap. I think that this is a huge problem with our political leaders today. Most of them very strongly believe that it has to be their way or the highway and there is no gray area in between.

  • Ellie


    November 20th, 2015 at 9:42 AM

    I think that we could safely say that this is true in any aspect of our lives that involves working with others and compromise.
    If we choose to only see our side every single time then there is no way that you will ever discover a way to get along.
    But how about looking at things from a different point of view from time to time?
    It may not change your mind or how you feel but it could make you a little more aware of where the other side is coming from and how to see things from their perspective.

  • Bob


    November 20th, 2015 at 1:35 PM

    aha!! So it isn’t that you are actually changing minds, but what you are doing is framing your arguments around the ideals that each party holds close to them. Basically you are bending your truth to meet their version of the truth

  • karl


    November 21st, 2015 at 8:04 AM

    it is almost impossible to change the minds of those who have held on to the same beliefs, even if misguided, for a very long time.

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