How Important Is It For Politicians To Have Empathy?

In a time of terrorist attacks, escalating racial tensions and violence, and outward bigotry against entire religious groups, it may seem like we need empathetic world leaders now more than ever.

But although voters seem to praise presidential candidates who expresses concern for others, this support doesn’t always come through on Election Day.

Empathy doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot at the polls, The New York Times pointed out this week. It’s not uncommon for the candidate who voters believe cares more “about the needs and problems of people like you” to lose, the Times noted, adding that it’s possible voters believe “empathy may not be such a great quality in a leader.”

This certainly feels relevant in explaining the rise of Donald Trump, who is the Republican front-runner despite his incessant insults, lies, misogyny, racism and relentless self-aggrandizing. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with less empathy.

In contrast, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) supporters often praise him for having a campaign based on empathy and compassion, and a video of the candidate rushing to help a man who fainted during a press conference went viral. However, Sanders’ path to nomination is currently quite narrow. Similarly, people praised Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who significantly trails both Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the polls — for hugging a supporter who talked about struggling with depression.

But is it true that empathy is not an important leadership quality? Social scientists disagree.

Yale University psychologist Dr. Paul Bloom is a member of the camp that argues empathy is an “overrated” trait for a leader. Although it can inspire altruism, he says, empathy can also be sullied by biases and doesn’t necessarily translate to moral decision-making.

Bloom and his colleagues conducted a study finding —> Read More