Do Liberals Really Care More About Empathy Than Conservatives?

The ambiguities of social science about American values

Kids are the cutest Rorschach inkblot tests. If you want to get a sense of people's "values," the go-to contemporary term for social mores, there's no better way than to ask them what they think children should be taught. And, in fact, that's exactly what Pew did in a recent survey, asking a panel of respondents about the importance of lessons about "responsibility," "creativity," and "perseverance."

The results reinforce a certain Protestant-work-ethic caricature of America. Out of 12 choices, "being responsible," "hard work," and "being well-mannered" were consistently ranked as the most important values to teach to children. Close runners-up included "persistence" and "independence," the other qualities on the list that evoke American self-reliance.

The data also present a familiar caricature of "liberals" and "conservatives." Based on a longer survey that classified respondents along an ideological spectrum from left to right, the researchers found that "consistent conservatives" were more likely to prioritize obedience and religious faith in particular, while "consistent liberals" emphasized tolerance, creativity, curiosity, and empathy for others. They were also significantly less likely than other respondents to rate "hard work" as one of the most important things to teach children—they ranked 13 percentage points lower than "consistent conservatives."

Views on Empathy, Curiosity, Creativity, Faith, Tolerance, and Obedience Across the Ideological Spectrum

Pew Research Center

These results track closely with the vague sense impressions people often use to describe the poles of American culture and politics: disciplined, religion-loving, straight-laced conservatives vs. artsy, smarty pants, soft-hearted liberals. The results for "empathy," "helping others," and "hard work" seem particularly potent. "Of course conservatives want to slash food-stamp spending," one could imagine a staunch liberal saying. "They don't teach their children to empathize with others." Alternatively: "Of course liberals want to dump money into food stamps. They don't care about hard work."

That's a powerful and dangerous thing about survey-based social science. It can offer evidence that, yes, the associative thinking Americans use to understand their peers' values and priorities does have some basis in reality. But it can also reify stereotypes about how people see the world, attaching hard numbers to highly interpretive, charged concepts.

"Tolerance" is a great example: 88 percent of "consistently liberal" respondents rated it as an important thing to teach kids, with 22 percent rating it among their top three values. Among "consistent conservatives," only 41 percent placed significance on teaching tolerance, with barely anyone including that in their list of most important lessons. But it seems unlikely that most conservatives are encouraging their kids to commit hate crimes and refuse to be in the same classroom as kids who are different from them. Perhaps those respondents interpret "tolerance" as a buzzword used by some left-leaning organizations to advocate positions like support for affirmative action, or maybe exclusion of prayer in public schools. This interpretation may or may not have fidelity to what "tolerance" actually means, but that's the whole point: The words people use as shorthand for "values" actually represent complex constellations of cultural and political thought. At least in part, this survey reinforces stereotypes about liberals and conservatives because it relies on concepts that have been continuously appropriated and transformed for ideological purposes.

That's not to say the results aren't interesting. Does it seem important that the proportion of women who value empathy was 14 percentage points higher than the proportion of men, or that Millennials were half as likely to rate "religious faith" as one of the most important things to teach kids compared to people over 30? Yes. Is it curious that 62 percent of white people said curiosity is important, compared to 48 percent of Hispanics—or, actually, that anyone at all said that curiosity doesn't matter that much for kids? Yes. Does it seem intuitively correct that people older than 65 were really into obedient children? Again, yes.

But do we really know that liberals are more empathetic than conservatives? No, probably not.