Nicholas Kristof followed up the column discussed in my last post with another called "How do we increase empathy," which offered a smorgasbord of research findings and speculations about factors affecting empathy. One was false (the claim that rich people give less to charity), but the others ranged from plausible to very likely. However, that leaves the question of how closely empathy is related to political and social opinions like the "poor people today have it easy" versus "poor people have hard lives" item.
1. He cites evidence suggesting that affluence makes people less empathetic. So if opinions about the poor are largely a matter of empathy, they should either become steadily less favorable as income increases, or drop off sharply at high incomes. Neither of these is the case: as discussed in my last post, opinions among affluent people are not noticeably different from opinions among middle-income people.
2. He cites Dacher Keltner (Berkeley) saying that "prayer, meditation, yoga" will boost empathy. So it seems clear that people who attend religious services more frequently will be more empathetic. Do they have more favorable views of the poor? No: they are substantially more likely to choose "poor people today have it easy."
3. He cites Steven Pinker (Harvard) as saying that "cuteness: paedomorphic features such as large eyes, a large head, and a small lower face,” is an important factor. So do people have more favorable views of government programs to help children than of programs to help old people? No: Social Security and Medicare are very popular, while Aid to Familes with Dependent Children was unpopular enough to be abolished by the 1996 welfare reform.
Of course, I think empathy is a good thing. But how nice people are is only a minor influence on their political views.