Empathy Trumps Fear? The Role of Group Empathy Theory in Shaping U.S. Foreign Policy

Post developed by Catherine Allen-West

There is a long, documented history of large opinion gaps along racial/ethnic lines regarding U.S. military intervention and humanitarian assistance. For example, some research suggests that since minorities are most likely to bear the human costs of war, African Americans and Latinos might be more strongly opposed to foreign intervention. Additionally, research conducted during the Iraq war found that the majority of African Americans didn’t support the war effort because they believed that they would be the ones called upon to do the “fighting and dying” and that the war would tie up resources typically used for domestic social welfare programs, programs upon which the group depends.

One obvious explanation for these opinion gaps is simple group interest. Americans are more likely to intervene to protect the lives and human rights of victims of humanitarian crises or genocides when the victims are “like us” and this narrow racial or ethnic group interest may be what drives racial/ethnic differences in support for foreign intervention or immigration policy in the U.S. This is important because public support for military and humanitarian interventions is crucial to not only the quantity of aid but also its quality and effectiveness.

But this simple in-group, material interest explanation doesn’t always hold up empirically. African Americans were more protective of the rights of Arab Americans after 9/11, even though they perceived themselves to be at higher risk from terrorism.

In a new paper, presented at the 2017 APSA annual meeting, Cigdem V. Sirin, Nicholas A. Valentino, and José D. Villalobos examine variations in political attitudes across three main racial/ethnic groups — Anglos, African Americans, and Latinos — regarding humanitarian emergencies abroad. The researchers tested these differences using their recently developed “Group Empathy Theory” which states that “empathy felt by members of one group for another can improve group-based political attitudes and behavior even in the face of material and security concerns.” Essentially, the researchers predict that a domestic minority group can empathize with an international group experiencing hardship, even when the conflict doesn’t involve the domestic group at all and when extending help oversees is costly.

The researchers tested their theory with a national survey experiment that assessed support for pre-existing foreign policy attitudes about the U.S. responsibility to protect, foreign aid, the U.S. response to the Syrian civil war, as well as the Muslim Ban proposed by Donald J. Trump.

First, they measured levels of group empathy and found that African Americans and Latinos both display significantly higher levels of general group empathy and support for foreign groups in need.

Next, to measure opinions about the U.S. ability to protect, they provided participants with a pair of statements about the role the U.S. should plan in international politics. The first statement read: “As the leader of the world, the U.S. has a responsibility to help people from other countries in need, especially in cases of war and natural disasters.” The second statement was the opposite — denouncing such responsibility to protect. Their results show that African Americans and Latinos are likely to attribute the U.S. higher responsibility to protect people of other countries in need as compared to Anglos. Furthermore, when asked about their opinion on the amount of foreign aid allocated to help countries in need, Latinos and African Americans were more strongly in favor of increasing foreign aid and accepting Syrian refugees than were Anglos.

The researchers further examined potential group-based difference in policy attitudes regarding Trump’s controversial “Muslim ban” which called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. Again, both Latinos and African Americans exhibited significantly higher opposition than Anglos to the exclusionary policy targeting a specific group solely based on that group’s religion.

Further analyses also supported the researchers’ claims that group empathy is a significant mediator of these racial gaps in support for humanitarian aid and military intervention on behalf of oppressed groups oversees.

This research brings into focus some of the dynamics that shape public opinion of foreign policy. Given the role of the public in steering U.S. leadership decisions, especially as the current administration seeks to implement deep cuts to foreign aid, investigating the role that group empathy plays in public responses to humanitarian emergencies has important broader implications, particularly concerning U.S. foreign policy and national security.

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