When I went to cast my ballot in New York City’s primary election this past September, and then in the general election for Mayor, City Council, and District Attorney in November, I had what felt like an “aha moment.” To foster cohesive communities that prioritize the well-being of all of their members, I realized, we must be empathic voters. In other words, for the stability of any community — and our democracy writ large — voters should not consider only their own personal needs and well-being, but those of their neighbors. Until this fall, I’d thought of voting as a means for ensuring that one’s own needs are reflected by the elected officials who represent them. I see now that voting should be a means for ensuring that the needs of one’s whole community — city, state, and country are reflected by the elected officials who represent them.
As it turns out, my aha moment was not very novel. According to my Googling, it’s a widely agreed upon that, in most cases, voting out of self-interest is wrong, and indeed most voters do not enter the voting booth with purely selfish intentions. Voting empathically is especially important for those from groups that have historically held power and privilege in society — electoral and otherwise. Those who have historically been marginalized are actually often better served by voting with self-interest, as their needs have long been overlooked.
In my graduate work, I studied the “intergroup empathy gap.” That is, the host of reasons for which we each tend to hold more empathy for those in our “ingroups,” — those with whom we share a salient identity (whether it be race, class, political party, alma matter, or sports team affiliation) than we hold for those who are in our “outgroups” — those with whom we do not share a salient identity.
We are more likely to flinch when we see those in our ingroups, versus our outgroups, feel pain and more likely to extend our help to them when we see they require assistance. We have an easier time imagining ourselves in ingroup members’ shoes and thus have an easier time considering their feelings and needs. Of course, no one person is always a part of our outgroup — we’re all in the “human” group at the very least — and the salience of any of our identity groups can shift at any given time. However, the effects of the intergroup empathy gap are most commonly seen with regard to defining traits such as race, religion, or sexuality. As such, the intergroup empathy gap is particularly important to consider, and address, among people who come from groups that have historically had power and privilege in society. The intergroup empathy gap is, in ways, at the root of ongoing prejudice and systemic inequalities.
Translated to voting, I wonder: does the intergroup empathy gap get in the way of many of us being truly empathic voters — particularly those of us who come from groups of privilege and power? When we cast our ballots considering the needs and well-being of our neighbors, are we only thinking about the neighbors that look like us or believe the same things as us? Are we, if even subconsciously, less willing or able to ensure that the needs of our neighbors who are different from us are reflected in our votes?
It seems likely. Unfortunately, bridging this gap is not easy. However, there are distinct traits and experiences that individuals who have demonstrated an ability to bridge the gap possess. In my graduate work, I studied how some white racial equality activists overcame the “intergroup empathy gap”. These were the common traits and experiences identified:
Common ingroup identity: having a salient shared ingroup identity with individuals who are otherwise considered part of outgroups (e.g. focusing on “We are all New Yorkers” vs. “You are Jewish” and “She is Muslim.”)
Shared or relatable experiences: having experienced forms of discrimination or oppression, even if not systemically (e.g. you were sent to a different school because of a disability so you know what it’s like to be seen as different or an “other.”)
Meaningful intergroup contact: working and interacting with people who are are in different groups in situations where everyone has an equal role in pursuit of a common goal (e.g. you successfully collaborated on a project with someone who is in your outgroup versus interacting with a service provider who is part of that outgroup.)
Values based on ingroup norms: being raised in a group or community that promotes values of justice and equality (e.g. your church espoused tolerance and demonstrated that Unitarian Universalists are committed to supporting individuals from all social groups.)
Understanding institutional structures and personal role in hierarchical social systems: recognizing the power and privilege that one has in relation to others (e.g. you have been afforded opportunities that others have not because of the color of your skin)
Understanding these traits and experiences can inform educational decisions, workplace practices, and even community policies for the better. At Generation Citizen, for example, as we facilitate our Action Civics curriculum in classrooms, students are collaborating with diverse peers and local community members and leaders to achieve a common goal. A recent pilot project pushes this further by connecting students in rural and urban classrooms to learn about their respective change making efforts and bridge divides across diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Perhaps an understanding of these traits and experiences can extend further to inform strategies for fostering empathic voters — those who vote across the bridge. In the upcoming 2018 election, I’ll be voting for candidates at nearly all levels of government, and this time, I will be intentional about considering the needs of all of my neighbors as I cast my ballot.