The impact of empathy and perspective-taking instructions on proponents and opponents of immigration


Prior to testing whether participants differed in their motivation for perspective taking, empathy, and emotional awareness and in their empathic accuracy (perspective taking and empathy), we conducted Pearson correlations to test whether these dependent variables correlated between the members of dyads. Independence was found for all variables (all ps ≥ 0.22). In light of the independence of these variables for the dyads, we used univariate ANOVAs to test the impact of condition (three levels: perspective taking, empathy, and control) and opinion on immigration (two levels: pro-immigration and anti-immigration) on the motivation of participants for perspective taking, empathy, and emotional awareness (being part of empathy), as well as on participants’ empathic accuracy (comprising empathy and perspective taking).

Pro-immigration participants were motivated to follow empathy or perspective-taking instructions

Motivation for empathy

To test whether condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) and opinion on immigration (pro- and anti-immigration) had an impact on the motivation for empathy, we performed a univariate ANOVA. The dependent variable was motivation for empathy (Fig. 1a), and the factors were condition (three levels: perspective taking, empathy, and control) and opinion on immigration (two levels: pro-immigration and anti-immigration). This analysis revealed a significant main effect of condition (F(2,86) = 4.67; p < 0.05), no main effect of opinion on immigration (F(1,86) = 2.14; p = 0.14), and an interaction between condition and opinion on immigration (F(2,86) = 3.2; p < 0.05). Follow-up independent t-tests that compared pro- and anti-immigration participants in each condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) revealed higher levels of motivation for empathy in pro- than in anti-immigration participants in the empathy condition (t(28) = 2.94; p < 0.01) and no differences between pro- and anti-immigration participants in the control and perspective-taking conditions (both ts ≤ 1.45; both ps ≥ 0.16). Strengthening the notion that the empathy instruction affected the motivation of pro-immigration participants, independent t-tests that compared the effects of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately for pro- and anti-immigration participants showed that the empathy condition increased the motivation for empathy in pro-immigration participants when compared with the control condition (t(29) = 4.17; p < 0.001) and when compared with the perspective-taking condition (t(28) = 2.2; p < 0.05), whereas there was no effect of the perspective-taking condition versus the control condition on pro-immigration participants (t(29) = 1.38; p = 0.18) and no effect of any of the conditions on anti-immigration participants (all ts ≤ 1.61; all ps ≥ 0.12).

Fig. 1: Impact of the empathy or perspective taking instructions on the motivation to engage in empathy, emotional awareness, and perspective taking.

Compared with pro-immigration participants in the control group, pro-immigration participants in the empathy group were a more motivated to feel empathy for the other and b more motivated to pay attention to their own emotions (emotional awareness). Similarly, pro-immigration participants were c more motivated to engage in perspective taking in the perspective-taking group than were pro-immigration participants in the control group. Furthermore, the motivation to engage in a empathy and b emotional awareness was higher in pro-immigration participants than in anti-immigration participants in the empathy group. Error bars depict ± 1 standard error. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

Motivation for emotional awareness

To test whether condition and opinion on immigration had an impact on the motivation for emotional awareness, we performed a univariate ANOVA. The dependent variable was motivation for emotional awareness towards one’s own emotions (Fig. 1b); the factors were condition (three levels: perspective taking, empathy, and control) and opinion on immigration (two levels: pro-immigration and anti-immigration). This analysis revealed a significant main effect of condition (F(2,86) = 6.62; p < 0.01), a trend for a main effect of opinion on immigration (F(1,86) = 2.76; p = 0.1), and an interaction between condition and opinion on immigration (F(2,86) = 3.83; p < 0.05). Follow-up independent t-tests that compared pro- and anti-immigration participants in each condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control), revealed no difference between participants with different views on immigration in the control condition and the perspective-taking condition (both ts ≤ .93; both ps ≥ 0.36). However, in the empathy condition, pro-immigration participants reported a higher motivation for emotional awareness than did anti-immigration participants (t(28) = 3.63; p < 0.01). Independent t-tests that compared the effects of conditions separately for participants who were pro- and anti-immigration showed that although the different conditions had no impact on the motivation for emotional awareness in anti-immigration participants (all ts ≤ .68; all ps ≥ 0.5), the empathy instruction increased the motivation to pay attention to one’s own emotions in pro-immigration participants compared with that in the control group (t(29) = 5.44; p < 0.001) and with that in the perspective-taking group (t(28) = 3.15; p < 0.01). No difference was found between the perspective-taking and the control groups for pro-immigration participants (t(29) = 1.52; p = 0.14).

Motivation for perspective taking

Finally, we tested the impact of condition and opinion on immigration on the motivation for perspective taking by using a univariate ANOVA. The dependent variable was motivation for perspective taking (Fig. 1c), and the factors were condition (three levels: perspective taking, empathy, and control) and opinion on immigration (two levels: pro-immigration and anti-immigration). This analysis revealed no significant main effect of condition (F(2,86) = 1.64; p = 0.2), no main effect of opinion on immigration (F(1,86) = 0; p = 0.99), and no interaction between condition and opinion on immigration (F(2,86) = 1.77; p < 0.18). Although this interaction was not significant, we conducted independent t-tests to examine whether, in line with previous findings on motivational differences between people of a rightist as opposed to a leftist orientation on indicators of empathy and perspective taking (Berndsen et al., 2018; Hasson et al., 2018; Porat et al., 2016), the same pattern of results as observed for the motivation for emotional awareness and empathy would replicate for the motivation for perspective taking. Indeed, independent t-tests that compared the effects of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately for pro- and anti-immigration participants revealed that pro-immigration participants had a higher motivation for perspective taking in the perspective-taking condition as opposed to the control condition (t(29) = 2.06; p < 0.05) and in the perspective-taking condition as opposed to the emotional awareness condition (t(28) = 2.54; p < 0.05). No other effect of independent t-tests, including those comparing pro- and anti-immigration participants in each condition, was significant (all other ts ≤ 0.5; all other ps ≥ 0.62).

Taken together, the results from all three variables related to motivation suggest that pro-immigration participants were motivated to follow the instructions in their condition.

No significant difference in the accuracy of empathy and perspective taking between conditions

To test the degree to which the instructions for empathy and perspective taking influenced pro- and anti-immigration participants in their inference of the other’s thoughts and emotions, we used the empathic accuracy procedure (Ickes, 2001). In this procedure, which is based on video excerpts of the conversation in which participants indicate their thoughts and feelings and infer the thoughts and feelings of the other, two raters blind to the condition of participants assessed the degree to which the self-description matched the inferred contents. To assess inter-rater reliability, we computed Spearman correlations between the codings of the two raters on correctly inferred thoughts and correctly inferred emotions. The results revealed good agreement between the two raters on emotions (rs = 0.87) and thoughts (rs = 0.74). In light of the independence of this variable between two members of one discussion dyad (as detailed at the beginning of the Results section), we conducted univariate ANOVAs on the percentage of correct thoughts and the percentage of correct emotions, with condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) and opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) as factors. No significant effects were found for any of these univariate ANOVAs (all Fs ≤ 2.7, all ps ≥ 0.11), which means that no differences in degree of empathy or perspective taking could be detected between conditions.

No significant difference between conditions on the implicit measure of interpersonal closeness

To test whether the physical distance between participants after the discussion was related to the self-report measure of physical closeness on the IOS (Aron et al., 1992), we computed Pearson correlations between both measures. In contrast to our expectation that explicit and implicit measures of interpersonal closeness would be related, no correlation between these variables was found (r = 0.002, p = 0.99). This lack of relation between our implicit and explicit measure of interpersonal closeness may have arisen from a ceiling effect, as the sofa we used was perhaps too small, and therefore may have induced small interpersonal distances by default. It may, thus, not be surprising that no effect of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control condition) was found on changes in physical proximity in a univariate ANOVA with dyad as the unit of analysis (F(2,40) = 0.48, p = 0.62).

Factor analysis on variables related to conflict

To determine whether there were underlying latent variables for the outcome measures related to the discussion, we conducted an exploratory factor analysis on the following dependent variables: all subscales from the post-negotiation questionnaire (Schlegel, 2013), positive and negative affect (PANAS, Watson et al., 1988), interpersonal closeness (IOS, Aron et al., 1992), self-reports on satisfaction, the perception that one won, the perception that the other won, and the number of agreements reached. More specifically, a principal axis factor analysis with oblique rotation (direct oblimin) was conducted on these items. The sampling adequacy was confirmed by a Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) measure of 0.74 and by KMO values for individual items of at least 0.46 (Field, 2013; Hutcheson, 1999). This analysis revealed four factors with eigenvalues above Kaiser’s criterion of 1. Altogether, these four factors explained 63.96% of the variance. The factor loadings after rotation are shown in Supplementary Appendix 5. According to the items loading on the factors, Factor 1 was interpreted as Cooperativeness, Factor 2 as Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions, Factor 3 as Success of the Negotiation, and Factor 4 as Agreement.

Perspective taking reduced levels of competitiveness and positive and negative emotions in pro-immigration participants

In the next step, the composite scores corresponding to each factor were computed by multiplying each participant’s value on the item with the factor loading of this item on the relevant factor. Prior to this computation, all items had been rescaled to a scale from 0 to 100. To assess the effects of opinion on immigration and condition on the four composite scores as dependent variables, we conducted a repeated-measures MANOVA with dyad as the level of analysis, opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) as repeated measures within a dyad, and condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) as a between-subject factor. Dyad was chosen as a level of analysis due to the potential non-independence of the variables of each member of the dyad on composite scores Agreement, Success, Competitiveness, and Emotion (all p < 0.2). For the composite score Cooperativeness, the correlation between the values of both members of the dyad was p = 0.81. No main effect of opinion on immigration (F(8,80) = 0.77; p = 0.63) or condition (F(4,40) = 1.27; p = 0.3) was observed, but there was a significant interaction of opinion on immigration and condition (F(8,80) = 2.12; p < 0.05). Follow-up univariate ANOVAs revealed that there was a significant interaction between opinion on immigration and condition on Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions (p < 0.05) and a trend for an interaction on Agreement (p = 0.1), but there was no interaction for the variables Cooperativeness and Success of the Negotiation (both ps ≥ 0.53). As depicted in Fig. 2, follow-up pairwise t-tests with the repeated measure opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) were separately conducted for each of the conditions (perspective taking, empathy, and control) on the dependent variables Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions. These tests revealed that in the perspective-taking condition, pro-immigration participants had lower levels of Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions than did anti-immigration participants (t(14) = 2.83; p < 0.05). Conversely, there was a trend in the control condition for pro-immigration participants to report higher levels of Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions than reported by the anti-immigration participants, but it did not reach significance (t(15) = 2.02; p = 0.06). Finally, no significant differences between pro- and anti-immigration participants were found in the empathy condition (t(14) = 0.37; p = 0.72). Independent t-tests that compared the effect of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately for pro- and anti-immigration participants revealed that perspective taking decreased Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions in pro-immigration participants compared to participants in the control condition (t(29) = 2.06; p < 0.05), whereas a trend in the opposite direction was observed for anti-immigration participants (t(29) = 1.85; p = 0.07), indicating that perspective taking reduced levels of Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions in pro-immigration participants. No other differences between conditions were found (all other ts ≤ 1.46; all other ps ≥ 0.16).

Fig. 2: Pro-immigration participants in the perspective-taking group had lower scores of competitiveness and emotions than did pro-immigration participants in the control group or anti-immigration participants in the perspective-taking group.
figure2

The graph depicts mean scores of the composite score Competitiveness and Positive and Negative Emotions for the conditions perspective taking, control, and empathy. Error bars depict ± 1 standard error. *p < 0.05.

To test which components of the composite score drove this effect, we followed this result up with a repeated-measures MANOVA with dyad as the level of analysis, opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) as a repeated measure within a dyad, condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) as a between-subject factor, and the four components of the composite scores (competitiveness self, competitiveness other, positive affect, negative affect) as dependent variables. In line with the results on the composite score, there was no main effect of condition (F(8,80) = 0.86; p = 0.55) or opinion (F(4,40) = 0.28; p = 0.89), but there was a significant interaction of condition and opinion (F(8,80) = 2.8; p = 0.009). Univariate tests revealed that this interaction was significant for the dependent variables positive affect, negative affect, and competitiveness other (all ps < 0.05), but not for competitiveness self (p = 0.19).

Follow-up pairwise t-tests with the factor opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) were conducted for each of the conditions (perspective taking, empathy, and control) on the dependent variables positive affect, negative affect, and competitiveness of the other. Furthermore, independent t-tests that compared the effect of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately for pro- and anti-immigration participants were conducted on the dependent variables positive affect, negative affect, and competitiveness of the other.

Empathy and perspective-taking instructions affect emotions in pro-immigration participants

To test whether positive affect differed for participants with opposing views on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration), we conducted pairwise t-tests with the repeated-measure factor opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) for each of the conditions (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately (Fig. 3a). These tests revealed that there was no significant difference in positive affect between pro- and anti-immigration participants in the control condition (t(15) = 0.46; p = 0.65). However, in the empathy condition, pro-immigration participants had more positive emotions than did anti-immigration participants (t(14) = 2.17; p < 0.05). Conversely, in the perspective-taking condition, pro-immigration participants tended to feel less positive emotions than did anti-immigration participants (t(14) = 2.07; p = 0.06). Independent t-tests that compared the effect of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately for pro- and anti-immigration participants revealed that pro-immigration participants had lower levels of positive affect in the perspective-taking condition than in the control condition (t(29) = 2.79; p < 0.01). Furthermore, pro-immigration participants had higher levels of positive affect in the empathy condition than they did in the perspective-taking condition (t(28) = 2.39; p < 0.05). No other effects were observed (all other ts ≤ 1.55; all other ps ≥ 0.13).

Fig. 3: Differences in positive and negative affect between proponents and opponents of immigration across groups.
figure3

a Positive affect was lower in pro-immigration participants in the perspective-taking group than in pro-immigration participants in the control or the empathy group. Moreover, in the empathy group, pro-immigration participants had higher scores of positive affect than did anti-immigration participants. b Negative affect was lower in pro-immigration participants in the perspective-taking condition than it was in pro-immigration participants in the control or empathy condition. The graph depicts mean scores of a positive affect and b negative affect. Error bars depict ± 1 standard error. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

To test whether negative affect differed for participants with opposing views on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration), we conducted pairwise t-tests with the repeated-measure factor opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) for each of the conditions (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately (Fig. 3b). These tests showed that there were no differences between pro- and anti-immigration participants in the control or empathy condition (both ts ≤ 1.66; both ps ≥ 0.12). However, pro-immigration participants had less negative affect than anti-immigration participants did in the perspective-taking condition (t(14) = 2.4; p < 0.05). Independent sample t-tests that compared the effect of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately for pro- and anti-immigration participants showed that pro-immigration participants had less negative affect in the perspective-taking condition than they did in the control and empathy conditions (both ts ≥ 2.25; both ps < 0.05). No other effect was significant (all other ts ≤ 1.55; all other ps ≥ 0.13).

Opponents of immigration perceive the other as being more competitive under perspective-taking instructions

To test whether opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) had an effect on the perceived competitiveness of the other (Fig. 4), we conducted pairwise t-tests with the repeated-measure factor opinion on immigration (pro- or anti-immigration) for each of the conditions (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately. These tests indicated that in the control condition, pro-immigration participants tended to report more competitiveness of the other than did anti-immigration participants (t(15) = 2.12; p = 0.05), whereas no differences in the perspective-taking or empathy conditions were present (both ts ≤ 1.49; both ps ≥ 0.16). Independent sample t-tests that compared the effect of condition (perspective taking, empathy, and control) separately for pro- and anti-immigration participants revealed that anti-immigration participants had increased ratings of the other’s competitiveness in the perspective-taking condition compared with those in the control condition (t(29) = 2.69; p < 0.05). No other effects were observed (both ts ≤ 1.53; both ps ≥ 0.14).

Fig. 4: Anti-immigration participants in the perspective group had a higher perception of the other’s competitiveness than did anti-immigration participants in the control group.
figure4

The graph depicts mean scores of competitiveness of the other. Error bars depict ± 1 standard error. *p < 0.05.



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