This project studies the impact of empathy on individual information processing and opinion formation on immigration policy. The researcher focuses on empathy and immigration for three reasons. First, immigration as a policy area is unresolved, is extremely salient, and influences the lives and quality of life of millions of people. Second, much of public opinion on immigration is divided along party lines, which presents a difficult test case for learning and opinion change. If empathy affects the motivational, learning, and opinion change processes on immigration opinion, its potential impact may be even greater in policy arenas that are not as divisive. Third, this project fills major gaps in scholarly work on emotion and immigration opinion. To date, scholarship has only explored the effects of anxiety, threat, anger, and enthusiasm on political opinions. This project advances knowledge by providing first-cut research into the impact of empathy on immigration opinion. In addition, this research explores how empathy affects not only immigration policy preferences but also the considerations (e.g., beliefs about immigrants) that people draw upon to form policy opinions.

The project addresses three chief research questions. How does empathy towards immigrants affect information seeking, political learning, and opinion change? Are these effects moderated by ethnicity and partisanship? How long and to what extent do these empathic effects endure? To assess these questions, the researcher conducts an experiment to measure the effects of increased feelings of empathy toward undocumented immigrants on individual learning, reason giving, and immigration policy opinion. The project uses real-world news articles to increase subject empathy and survey self-report questions to provide a comprehensive understanding of the effects of this understudied emotion on the issue of immigration. The expectation is that that empathy motivates information-seeking behavior, enhances the prospects for political learning, and ultimately changes even hardened opinions such as those on immigration. It is also posited that the effects of empathy depend on a person's race and partisanship. This project innovates by using a survey to follow up on its experiments in order to estimate whether the immediate impact of specific emotions on opinion are temporary or has more lasting effects.

This research makes several broader contributions. The project sheds light on how citizens think about divisive issues. Moreover, the project enhances understanding of the impact of emotion on public opinion.

Project Report

As the United States continues to struggle to find common ground on immigration, it is increasingly apparent that public opinion is not based solely on a logical consideration of policy choices—emotional appeals also matter in people’s reasoning and opinion formation. The primary objective of this research is to evaluate the effectiveness of empathetic strategies, as they are utilized by public officials and media sources. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the University of California, Riverside, we conducted research that includes analysis of media coverage and experimental studies of public opinion. We find in our review of media coverage of immigration reform, that efforts at empathetic framing increase over time, and can be found across party lines. From the experimental analysis we conducted, we found that empathetic framing of undocumented immigrants is associated with increases in support for policies such as a pathway to citizenship and the DREAM Act. Furthermore, these increases in support are even more substantial among those who have not yet come into contact with undocumented immigrants, and among those who are predisposed to empathize in general. This contributes to a larger body of literature, which shows that framing immigration in ways to induce anxiety and fear can drive down support for policies that benefit unauthorized immigrants. This makes the research timely and relevant to current public policy challenges facing the country, adding scientific and quantifiable evidence to what the American public believes regarding the impact of emotional appeals on public opinion.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of California Riverside
United States
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