A recent study in Israel used brain scans to explore the differences in empathy between political liberals and conservatives. The researchers found that when imagining other people suffering, liberals tended to show stronger brain reactions associated with empathy compared to conservatives. This pattern of brain activity was linked to participants’ self-reported political beliefs. The study was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Political ideologies are sets of beliefs and values that influence how people view the government, society, and power distribution. They provide a framework for understanding and addressing political issues. One common division is between left-leaning liberals and right-leaning conservatives.

Leftist ideologies generally prioritize social equality and advocate for more government intervention in economic and social matters. They typically support wealth redistribution, social welfare programs, and progressive social reforms. Rightist ideologies, on the other hand, tend to prioritize individual liberty and advocate for limited government intervention in economic and social affairs. They typically support free-market capitalism, traditional social values, and policies that emphasize personal responsibility.

Previous studies have suggested a link between political ideology and empathy. These studies indicated that individuals with left-leaning ideologies tend to experience higher levels of empathy. However, since those studies relied on self-reports and questionnaires, it was unclear whether the reported differences in empathy were due to actual differences or simply how individuals perceived and reported their own levels of empathy.

Study author Niloufar Zebarjadi and his colleagues wanted to explore whether brain activity during the time when an individual is believed to be experiencing empathy really confirms findings about the link between empathy and political ideology. They used a neuroimaging technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to focus on a brain region known as the temporal-parietal junction. Previous research indicated that this area of the brain is key for understanding emotional experiences and isolated a brain activity pattern in this region that is thought to indicate that the person is experiencing empathy.

MEG is a method for measuring the magnetic fields generated by electrical activity in the brain. It enables researchers to detect changes in brain activity that occur within milliseconds. MEG scanners use sensors to detect weak magnetic fields produced by electrical impulses in the brain. Analyzing these signals allows researchers to identify and locate brain activity associated with various cognitive and emotional processes, including empathy.

The study included 55 healthy participants recruited in Israel through social media. Thirty of the participants were male, and the average age was 25 years old. To measure the participants’ levels of empathy when imagining another person’s suffering, the researchers created two sets of experimental conditions and randomly assigned the participants to go through them.

The conditions involved reading a one-sentence story that either described someone suffering (e.g., “This woman just heard that there was a shooting in her son’s school”) or something neutral (“This woman is ironing her clothes”). Participants had 10 seconds to read the sentence and were then shown 8-10 photos related to the situation described. Each photo was shown for 2 seconds.

During this process, participants lay flat on their backs in the MEG scanner, which recorded their brain activity. In addition to the brain scans, participants completed assessments of their political ideology, right-wing authoritarianism, propensity for empathy, and their level of empathy toward the opposite political group.

The neuroimaging data captured patterns of brain activity that indicated participants were experiencing empathy. The researchers referred to this as the “neural empathy response.” They found that liberals exhibited a stronger neural empathy response compared to conservatives. This response was also associated with participants’ self-reported political beliefs and their acceptance of right-wing values. In other words, those with a greater inclination toward left-leaning ideologies and less acceptance of right-wing values tended to have stronger neural empathy responses.

“The results confirmed a typical alpha rhythm empathy response in brain’s temporo-parietal junction. The neural response was significantly stronger in the leftist group and was parametrically modulated by political inclination and driven by right-wing values. Yet, one cannot exclude the possibility that the brain of rightists might respond differently, depending on other empathic contexts. However, our study further supports the observation that leftists might respond more empathetically to others’ suffering,” the study authors concluded

The study makes a valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of the neural underpinnings of political ideologies. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study sample was small and all participants were young and from Israel. Studies on individuals from other cultures and of other age groups might not produce equal results.

The paper “Ideological values are parametrically associated with empathy neural response to vicarious suffering” was authored by Niloufar Zebarjadi, Eliyahu Adler, Annika Kluge, Mikko Sams, Jonathan Levy.