By Emma Young
We could name any group of people we know are suffering right now. some in distant lands, some in our own. Research shows that we feel less empathy for people in other countries – and are therefore less likely to support them, for example by protesting or donating money. Meital Balmas and Eran Halperin from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem now report on one factor that can influence this: our feelings towards the national leader. The couple’s study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that a leader who is perceived as “good” and popular at home creates more empathy and even more tangible help for his struggling citizens.
In four experiments, participants read fictional reports about alleged leaders in Belgium. These articles have put executives in either a positive or a negative light, focusing on, for example, their trustworthiness and warmth (or lack thereof). The participants also read about the suffering of Belgian citizens after a terrorist attack.
Initial studies of Israeli citizens showed that when the “Prime Minister” was described in bright rather than negative terms, the participants showed more empathy towards the Belgian population and were more willing to help families in need. However, a subsequent study found that the prime minister’s perceived popularity was important: a prime minister described as good and popular increased empathy, while an unpopular one did not – even when described as good.
The team then ran a version of this final study on 304 American adults. The methods were similar, but instead of reading about a terrorist attack, this time participants read about a Belgian teenager who was struggling to cope with the havoc and cost of treating his rickets. Participants exposed to the positive description repeated the earlier results when the country’s prime minister was presented as popular and reported more empathy for the youth and his family than those who read the negative report. They also said that they would rather sign a petition asking the Belgian government for help. And when asked if they would donate part of their fee for participating in the study to the teenager and his family, they were more likely to agree.
What should we do with all this knowledge? “We know that national leaders provide a basis for forming opinions about their respective nations and contribute to the stereotyping of their citizens,” the researchers write. And they think this explains the results – when we think that a national leader who is a good person is popular, we tend to believe that the people of the nation are probably good people too, and we feel more empathy for their need.
The work should have an impact on executives, the researchers think. “For the past few decades, not only have national leaders been the main focus of media coverage of international affairs, but now they have followers from all over the world on Twitter,” they write. This puts a “great responsibility” on their shoulders, they add. “The results of this study show that leaders are able to contribute to better and more empathetic relationships between societies and to promote pro-social behavior around the world.”
That’s an interesting idea. Would people in other countries have felt so much sympathy for the Christchurch people after the 2019 shootings if New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hadn’t been such a good person – and a popular Prime Minister too? What if she wanted more – well who? Add your own least loved democratically elected leader to this room …
However, it is worth noting that the country used in this study – Belgium – is of course an open democracy. It may seem reasonable to conclude that people who love and choose a “good” person are more likely to be “good” people. Unfortunately, of course, a lot of human suffering occurs in countries without a democratically elected leader. How this affects our empathy for these citizens is an important question that is beyond the scope of this study.
– I take care of your plight, but only if I like your leader: The impact of the perceived personality of the national leaders on empathy and pro-social behavior towards their citizenship
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) works at BPS Biomedarticles