What if Citizens Have Too Much Compassion or an Empathy Deficit? Explaining Political Attitudes and Behaviour with Empathic Ability

Abstract

Empathy plays a foundational role in morality and some argue that a lack of empathy is to blame for today’s toxic political environment. Empathetic reactions emerge early in life and are modulated by interpersonal and contextual factors, especially group membership. Yet surprisingly little research has been undertaken to empirically asses if individual differences in empathic ability can explain political attitudes and behaviour. This article addresses this lacuna by identifying the effects of empathy in the context of the United Kingdom. Empathy is measured with a battery of ten items for 7691 respondents. The results demonstrate that empathic ability is a consistent predictor of attitudinal and behavioral differences between citizens, such as ideology, policy preferences, partisan identity, strength of partisan identity, turnout, and vote choice in elections and referendums. Remarkably, the empathy scale used in this article is better at predicting a number of attitudes and behaviors than the Five Factor Model, which has important consequences for the study of the effects of personality traits in political psychology.

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