Changing Hearts and Minds? Why media messages designed to foster empathy often fail

Politicians and social activists frequently employ media designed to ``change hearts and minds” by humanizing outgroups. These messages, it is assumed, lead to empathy, which motivates individuals to reconsider punitive policy attitudes. Is this approach effective? Using two experiments in a Western State, we explore the effect of humanizing images and media on empathy toward Latino immigrants as well as on support for policies that would harm immigrants. We find that while the media humanized Latinos for all respondents, the treatment messages produced feelings of empathy primarily among those with the most positive prior attitudes toward Latinos. A key intended target of the media messages — those with the highest pre-treatment antipathy toward the outgroup — reported dramatically lower levels of empathy. Thus, the media worked as expected primarily for those who already had positive views of the outgroup. In a second study, we show that dissonance is one important mechanism driving these differential results. In both studies, we find that treatments designed to provoke increased empathy did not yield significant shifts in policy attitudes. Thus, changing hearts is a complex task, making the ability to change minds elusive. Please email to request a copy of this working paper.

Project collaborators/co-authors: Christopher Karpowitz, Quin Monson, David Romney, and Mikle South

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Joshua Gubler
Associate Professor of Political Science

Joshua Gubler is a comparative political psychologist studying intergroup cooperation and conflict, affect, emotion, persuasion, and motivation.