Article Author: Brett J. Weiss
Elevated brain activation in a key region for mentalizing others’ perspectives suggests those who identify as liberal exhibit more empathy than conservatives.
- Those who identify as liberal display brainwave signatures suggesting they have more empathy for other individuals in pain than those with right-wing affiliations.
- Liberals who see and hear others experiencing anguish have more activation in a central brain region for empathy — the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) — compared to conservatives.
While those on the political spectrum’s left tend to have more egalitarian values, believing all members of society should have similar rights and opportunities, those on the right align more with hierarchical social structures. Aside from their values, teasing out what psychological traits distinguish them has proven tricky. Numerous surveys utilizing self-assessments of empathy — the ability to understand another’s feelings — have compared those affiliated with left-wing and right-wing politics to better understand their psychological differences. A recurring theme from these assessments has been that liberals display more empathy, and researchers have just begun implementing brain activity analysis to find whether these self-assessments carry any weight.
Published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Levy and colleagues from Reichman University in Israel show liberals exhibit elevated brain activity in a key brain region for empathic processing, the TPJ, in response to seeing and hearing another individual in anguish. Conservatives, on the other hand, didn’t display significant brain activity changes in this region. These findings support what researchers have found using self-assessments — that left-wingers exhibit more individual empathy.
Leftists Display More Empathy-Related Brain Activity
Levy and colleagues divided fifty-five healthy adult participants into liberal or conservative groups based on their answers to a political survey called the “political ideology scale.” The researchers then evaluated brainwave signatures — alpha wave suppression — in the TPJ as an indicator of brain activity in response to the presentation of seeing and hearing other individuals in distress. Greater alpha wave suppression in the TPJ was interpreted as higher activation in this brain region for empathy processing.
The Israel-based team used a technique called magnetoencephalography to measure brain waves throughout the entire brain. They found differences in brainwave signatures in some of the participants within the TPJ. These results suggested that seeing and hearing others in distress affects brain activity in this central region involved in empathizing.
To better understand how empathy compares in leftists versus rightists, Levy and colleagues charted the alpha wave suppression brainwave signatures in the TPJ in the two groups. Interestingly, a significant alpha brainwave suppression was found in the TPJs of leftists in response to other individuals’ anguish, however, this brainwave difference didn’t significantly appear in rightists. These findings suggest that leftists display a significant alpha brainwave suppression that indicates increased activity in the central region for empathy, the TPJ, in response to another individual’s suffering. At the same time, no significantly increased TPJ activity occurred in rightists.
“Our study further supports the observation that leftists vs rightists might respond more empathetically to others’ suffering,” said Levy and colleagues.
Choosing Different Social Contexts for Future Research
A few caveats go along with the study. First, the leftist versus rightist distinctions were evaluated in the context of Israeli participants who are immersed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether these findings apply to American politics remains to be explored. Moreover, conservatives may be more empathetic to those who share their political affiliation, which this study didn’t evaluate. In other words, future studies should examine whether different social contexts elicit empathy-related brain activity in conservatives.
Zebarjadi N, Adler E, Kluge A, Sams M, Levy J. Ideological values are parametrically associated with empathy neural response to vicarious suffering. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2023 May 22:nsad029. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsad029. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37217192.