People Who Want To Be More Empathic May Also Develop “Liberal” Moral Values

By Emily Reynolds

No matter how happy you are in yourself, there’s probably something about your personality you’d like to change. Maybe you feel you’re too uptight or want to be more outgoing, or perhaps you’d like to be less moody or more tolerant of other people’s shortcomings.

It’s likely that such a change in personality will have some kind of social consequence, whether that’s in your relationship with your spouse or your ability to get on with your colleagues. But it might also affect which moral values you hold important.

That’s what Ivar R. Hannikainen and colleagues suggest in a new paper in the Journal of Research in Personality. They found that growth in one area, empathy, was associated with a shift in moral foundations to a more classically “liberal” style of morality.

The study took place over fifteen weeks, with 414 participants answering weekly “waves” of questions. First, they filled in measures exploring two facets of empathy: empathic concern and perspective-taking. Empathic concern reflects someone’s reaction to suffering (e.g. “I often have tender feelings for people less fortunate than me”), while perspective-taking looks at their tendency to take other points of view (e.g. “I try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”).

Participants also filled in a questionnaire looking at five “moral foundations”, or fairly broad moral values which people may prioritise in different ways. These consisted of care, fairness, loyalty to one’s ingroup, respect for authority, and observance of “purity” (for instance, keeping sexual impulses in check).

Both of these sets of questions were repeated throughout the fifteen weeks of the study. During the first wave only, participants were also asked about their desire to change empathic concern and perspective-taking — “I want to have tender feelings towards people less fortunate than me”, for example. Demographic data, including political orientation, was also measured.

As in previous work, moral foundations were linked to political orientation: liberals were more concerned with the values of fairness and care than conservatives, who identified more closely with statements related to purity, authority and loyalty.

But what of empathy change? The results suggested that people can increase their levels of both empathic concern and perspective-taking: participants who had more of a desire to grow in both areas indeed saw increasing scores over the fifteen weeks. These goals also had an impact on moral foundations: those who expressed a desire to become more empathic also increased in the areas more closely linked to liberalism (fairness and care) and decreased on those areas related to conservatism (purity, authority and loyalty). Those who reported an actual increase in either facet of empathy also increased in fairness and care (though they didn’t decline in purity, authority and loyalty).

The fact that participants saw an increase in their levels of empathy seems like positive news. But whether they were actually more empathetic and able to take others’ perspectives is hard to say considering the study relied on self-reporting. Combining self-reports with observer data may improve the validity of the findings. And although the increase in empathy was associated with a more “liberal” pattern of moral values, it’s unclear whether people’s political views actually changed (indeed, conservatives would likely argue that fairness and care are not purely liberal qualities).

Why might an increase in empathy see your moral foundations change? Co-author William Chopik argues that it may be to do with opening yourself up to other arguments. “Being a better perspective-taker exposes you to all sorts of new ideas, so it makes sense that it would change someone,” he said. “When you become more empathic, it opens up a lot of doors to change humans in other ways, including how they think about morality and ideology – which may or may not have been intended.”

Moral migration: Desires to become more empathic predict changes in moral foundations

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest