Perspective Taking Through Partisan Eyes: Empathy, Partisanship, and International Cooperation

Classic theories of international relations suggest that conflict results from states’ inability to consider security issues from one another’s perspectives. The ability to place oneself in another’s shoes, often referred to as cognitive empathy or perspective-taking, is central to explaining the presence or absence of the security dilemma in world politics, which arises when one state misperceives another’s defensive-minded behavior as an offensive action.

A growing chorus of scholars and commentators maintains that if leaders and the publics accounted for the perspectives of other countries and leaders, they would bolster the cause of peace and international cooperation. Nor is this view limited to academics and pundits; it has informed the foreign policy doctrines of the last two Democratic presidential administrations in the United States. Former President Barack Obama emphasized how his willingness to consider issues through China or Iran’s eyes reflected a novel shift in the U.S.’s approach to international affairs. His first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, described the foreign policy doctrine of “smart power” as “leaving no one on the sidelines, showing respect, even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.” President Joe Biden used his inaugural address to explicitly encourage Americans to “just for a moment, stand in the other person’s shoes,” and he reportedly considers “strategic empathy” as an essential feature of his foreign policy outlook.

Our article, “Perspective Taking Through Partisan Eyes: Cross-National Empathy, Partisanship, and Attitudes Towards International Cooperation” evaluates these optimistic views about the importance of cognitive empathy to cooperative outcomes. While this linkage may seem intuitive, it rests on a surprisingly limited base of evidence. Indeed, previous research tells us relatively little about the relationship between empathy and public attitudes toward cooperation. Existing studies further posit that empathy is both an ingrained disposition (which varies across individuals) and a feature of certain circumstances (which may be more or less salient depending on the cues that individuals receive from their environment), yet have not rigorously tested this proposition. Finally, prior work has generally not considered whether empathy is linked with other attitudes, like partisanship, which represents both the basis for domestic political coalitions and an increasingly binding constraint on American foreign policy.

We begin by developing an argument about why and under what conditions cognitive empathy increases support for international cooperation. We suggest that cognitive empathy increases positive affect towards other actors and awareness of the possibility of “win-win” cooperative solutions. However, partisanship sharply conditions this effect, specifically because it influences both the malleability and content of individuals’ political views. On malleability, stronger partisans (e.g. Strong Democrats and Strong Republicans) are more attached to their attitudes, and thus more likely to update their attitudes in response to empathetic cues, than weaker partisans (Moderate Democrats, Independents, and Moderate Republicans). On content, left-learning partisanship is positively correlated with preexisting support for international cooperation. Empathetic cues should then exert larger average effects among Independents and Moderate Republicans, who are less likely than Democrats to support engagement with international institutions in the absence of external stimulus.

To test our argument, we need evidence of how individuals react to empathetic cues, as well as those same individuals’ characteristics (such as their self-reported levels of empathetic capacity and partisanship) and their support for international cooperation. Accordingly, we conduct a series of survey experiments in which we ask nearly 5,000 U.S. citizens to evaluate the United States ratification of a hypothetical, but realistic international agreement while randomly assigning some respondents to consider the perspective of another country’s leader before reporting their personal attitude about the treaty. For the purposes of generalizability, we also vary the arena of cooperation (climate change or nuclear proliferation) and the target of perspective-taking (China or India).

We find that the glass is both half-full and half-empty when it comes to empathy and international cooperation. On the one hand, there is a substantial positive correlation between our respondents’ self-reported levels of empathy and their support for U.S. participation in international treaties. On the other hand, asking respondents to consider the treaty from the other country’s perspective has only marginal aggregate effects on support for cooperation.

However, these small aggregate effects mask considerable variation by partisanship and partisan attachment. In line with our predictions, the effect of empathetic cues were largest among Independents and Moderate Republicans. Because these weak partisans are, by nature, less politically attentive and hold less entrenched views than their more partisan counterparts, they are especially susceptible to empathetic cues. Supplemental analyses confirm that partisanship — as a statement about both the malleability and content of individuals’ attitudes — encodes information distinct from both liberal/conservative policy preferences and views about the efficacy of military force in foreign policy, and thereby provides us with critical vocabulary for identifying the individuals most likely to be affected by perspective taking cues. Finally, additional experimental tests show that the cooperation-inducing effects of our empathetic cue stem primarily from respondents’ increased positive affect toward other states rather than any sophisticated strategic calculations.

So are the optimists on to something when they extoll the virtues of empathy for cooperative outcomes? Recent Democratic presidents are certainly not wrong to underscore the importance of one’s innate capacity to see issues from others’ perspectives. But the evidence is much less clear on whether attempts to induce empathetic reactions through specific cues are an effective rhetorical or political strategy. For many of our respondents, the invitation to view the world through another leader’s eyes did not yield a major change in attitudes toward cooperation. Yet the middle swath of our sample — Independents and Moderate Republicans — exhibited quite a large shift in support for the treaty. Given that elections and policy debates are often won by attracting the marginal median voter to one’s cause, these “swing empathizers” may be an important constituency for political leaders seeking to convert their prosocial preferences into action.

This blog piece is based on the forthcoming Journal of Politics article Perspective Taking through Partisan Eyes: Cross-National Empathy, Partisanship, and Attitudes toward International Cooperation by Don Casler and Dylan Groves

The empirical analysis has been successfully replicated by the JOP and the replication files are available in the JOP Dataverse.

About the Authors

Don Casler is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on international relations, political psychology, organizational theory, and foreign policy decision making. You can read more about his work here and follow him on Twitter: @Don_Casler.

Dylan Groves is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lafayette College. His research focuses on comparative politics, political behavior, and the political economy of development. You can read more about his work here and follow him on Twitter: @dylanwgroves.