Research Shows Higher Motivations for Empathy and Perspective Taking May Be Held by Those with Pro-Immigration Beliefs

Summary of:

Klimecki, O. M., Vetois, M., & Sander, D. (2020), The impact of empathy and perspective-taking instructions on proponents and opponents of immigration. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 7(91), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-00581-0

Background & Theory

This article explores how one’s empathy and ability to share in others’ perspectives might be impacted by thoughts and feelings on immigration (and generalized as one’s political affiliation as right or left). The study has implications on what this may mean in general for increasing someone’s motivation or ability to empathize/understand someone else’s perspective.

Research Questions

Klimecki, Vetois, and Sander seek to address the following question:

  1. Does someone’s initial beliefs surrounding immigration affect their ability to empathize or take the perspective of those with differing beliefs? Do they hinder or improve relationships as a result?

Methods

The study included 92 participants of varying ages (youngest age 18, oldest age 72), with 50% female/50% male participation. These participants were all from Switzerland, and all spoke French fluently. Participants were gathered through flyers on the University of Geneva campus, open to any background except psychology so as to not skew results.

Prior to their participation in groups, they all conducted a questionnaire pertaining to their demographics and views on immigration. The study included splitting groups into three different areas to evaluate how people react to the instructions given; these 3 groups were provided instructions for either perspective-taking, empathy, or independent (no instructions given). Two people (unknown to each other) of the same sex were assigned to each group, with one considered pro-immigration and one considered anti-immigration. In these groups, they discussed prompted questions relating to immigration, in light of their group instructions. They had to record joint answers to these questions, and afterward, were individually evaluated based on their experience via qualitative responses and another questionnaire. 

The results collected from the discussions, questionnaires, and self-reports were all evaluated through numerous means. Behavioral data was run through SPSS Statistics 24 software. Data were compiled into composite scores, and to test both differences and relationships between the data, the researchers used ANOVAs/MANOVAs (differences) and Chi-test square and Fisher’s exact tests (relationships). Areas of evaluation were motivation for empathy, motivation for emotional awareness, and motivation for perspective-taking.

Results

The results showed that those who fall on the left of the political spectrum tend to be more easily affected by experimental manipulations than those on the right; they are generally more likely to show greater motivations for empathy and prosocial behavior. Both negative and positive emotions were reduced for those who fell in the pro-immigration category. Additionally, it is shown that the more patriotic or nationalist someone is, the less likely they are to seek to understand the perspective of those seeking asylum, and that perspective-taking might actually further conflict for those who hold anti-immigration views (in any context and as previous research suggests, perspective-taking may not always be most helpful when trying to encourage empathy or improve relationships). A relationship was shown between empathy and positive emotions, though further studies are encouraged for both this and other results from this study. 

What This Means

  • This study shows that at least in terms of immigration, one’s views do impact both someone’s willingness and ability to be empathetic and genuinely understand and appreciate someone else’s perspective. 
  • It is possible that someone opposed to immigration might have empathy or share someone else’s perspective well, but this study shows that in some cases, it actually worsened the conflict and created more defensive views. 
  • This study furthers the previously held research that perspective-taking might make matters worse instead of better. It’s suggested to work on indirect emotion regulation as opposed to actually eliciting a different emotional response for increased empathy or improved relationships with those with differing views. This is because motivation is shown to be the key to improving the situation.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Getting to know your clients well may help determine whether a perspective-taking approach would be beneficial or make the situation worse. For the latter, finding the core motivation and working forward from there may be most helpful.

For everyone: It seems conflict is often furthered through one’s own perspective and the likelihood of becoming defensive. Try to understand your own motivation, as well as the other’s intent, to lower the defense on both sides and come to a peaceful resolution.