Changing Hearts and Minds? Why Media Messages Designed to Foster Empathy Often Fail

Abstract

Politicians and social activists frequently employ media designed to ‘change hearts and minds’ by humanizing outgroups. These messages, it is assumed, lead to empathic concern, which motivates individuals to reconsider punitive policy attitudes. How effective is this approach? Using two experiments, we find that while media messages humanized Latinos for all respondents, the treatment messages produced the largest empathy response among those with the most positive prior attitudes. A key intended target of the media messages – those with the highest pre-treatment antipathy toward the outgroup – reported a dramatically lower increase in empathy. In a second study, we show that unpleasant affect from dissonance is one important mechanism driving these differential results. In both studies, treatments designed to provoke increased empathic concern produced little change in policy attitudes. Thus, changing hearts using empathy-inducing media is a complex task, making the ability to change minds elusive.

Publication
The Journal of Politics