By Emma Young
We could all name groups of people who we know to be suffering right now; some in distant countries, some in our own. Research shows that we feel less empathy for people in other countries — and so are less likely to support them by protesting, say, or donating money. Meital Balmas and Eran Halperin at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem now report a factor that can influence this, however: our feelings about the national leader. The pair’s study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that a leader who is perceived as “good” and popular at home elicits more empathy, and even greater tangible help, for their struggling citizens.
Across four experiments, participants read fictitious reports about purported leaders in Belgium. These articles painted the leaders in either a positive or a negative light, focusing on their trustworthiness and warmth (or lack of it), for example. The participants also read about the suffering of Belgian citizens in the wake of a terrorist attack.
Initial studies on Israeli citizens found that when the “prime minister” was described in glowing, rather than negative, terms, participants reported feeling more empathy towards Belgian people, and reported being more willing to help families in distress. A subsequent study found that the perceived popularity of the prime minister was important, however: a PM described as being good and popular boosted empathy, while an unpopular one did not — even if they were described as being good.
The team then ran a version of this last study with 304 American adults. The methods were similar, but instead of reading about a terrorist attack, this time participants read about a Belgian teenager who was struggling to cope with the ravages and cost of treatment of his rickets. Repeating the earlier findings, when the country’s prime minister was presented as being popular, the participants exposed to the positive description reported more empathy for the teen and his family than those who’d read the negative report. They also said that they’d be more likely to sign a petition appealing to the Belgian government to help. And, when asked if they’d donate some of their fee for taking part in the study to the teenager and his family, they were more likely to agree.
What should we make of all these findings? “We know that national leaders provide rationale for opinion-building regarding their respective nations and contribute to the stereotyping of their citizens,” the researchers write. And they think this is what explains the results — when we think that a national leader who is a good person is popular, we tend to think that the nation’s people are likely to be good people, too, and we feel more empathy for their distress.
The work should have implications for leaders, the researchers think. “In recent decades, not only have national leaders served as main foci of the media coverage of international affairs but nowadays they have followers from all over the world via Twitter,” they write. This puts a “huge responsibility” on their shoulders, they add. “The results of this study show that national leaders are in a position to contribute to better and more empathetic inter-society relations and raise pro-social behaviour around the world.”
It is an interesting idea. Would people in other countries have felt as much sympathy for the people of Christchurch in the wake of the 2019 shootings, say, if New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern hadn’t seemed like such a good person — and also a popular prime minister? What if she’d more like — well, who? Insert your own least-liked democratically elected leader in that space…
It’s worth noting, though, that of course the country used in this study — Belgium — is an open democracy. It might seem reasonable to infer that people who love and elect a “good” person are more likely to be “good” people, too. Unfortunately, of course, a huge amount of human suffering is happening in countries without a democratically elected leader. How that affects our empathy for those citizens is an important question that’s beyond the scope of this study.