Helping the Homeless: The Role of Empathy, Race and Deservingness in Motivating Policy Support and Charitable Giving

Wronski.pngPhoto credits: Rob via Creative Commons 2.0 (left); National Geographic (right)


Kimberly Gross, George Washington University

Julie Wronski, University of Mississippi

While overall homelessness has decreased in recent years, it remains a widespread problem that threatens many low-income Americans. Media depictions of homelessness often convey individual weaknesses, stigmatizing stereotypes, and disgust. To counter this, homeless charities use humanizing appeals that tell the story of specific individuals depicted as deserving of assistance. For instance, the campaign “Rethink Homelessness” asked homeless people on the streets of Orlando, Florida to write down something about themselves that people wouldn’t know just by walking past them, then created a viral video based upon their stories. But does this type of messaging strategy increase sympathy, move attitudes on government assistance, and ultimately motivate personal behavior to help homeless individuals in need? Importantly, is the success of such campaigns contingent upon whether the depicted beneficiaries are from one’s racial in-group (i.e. White) or out-group (i.e. African-American)?

Our Political Behavior article explores how message campaigns that employ humanizing stories work to help the homeless. First, we examine how two features of the message – particularly, the race of the individuals shown, and the degree to which they are portrayed as deserving – matter. Specifically, we examine how these messages influence monetary charitable giving, as well as attitudes toward government assistance and sympathy. We also explore how individuals’ racial resentment and empathetic ability (measured using the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test) moderate these message effects.

We conducted two online survey experiments with Whites-only samples: one administered through Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS) and the other by Qualtrics Panels. In each, participants were randomly assigned to watch one of four videos depicting homeless individuals in Washington, DC. Each video, modeled after the “Rethink Homelessness” campaign, showed two male and two female individuals (either White or African-American) holding a sign, while each person says “I am homeless.” The homeless individuals in the videos were matched on age and gender by race, and the paired individuals wore the same clothes. The four signs constituted our deservingness manipulation and provided either no information beyond the person being homeless or four distinct reasons why the individual was homeless.

Willingness to donate money to a homeless charity – our behavioral measure – was assessed using a dictator game. Following the video treatments, participants were offered additional funding for the study ($10 in TESS and $4 in Qualtrics), and were given the opportunity to donate none, some, or all of that compensation in one-dollar increments to Miriam’s Kitchen, a private charity that provides food and services to the homeless in Washington, DC. Across both studies more than 70% of participants donated something, totaling nearly $7500 in donations to Miriam’s Kitchen!

We found that the race of the homeless individuals depicted in our videos had no direct effect on government policy attitudes or charitable donations in either study. Videos that featured deservingness information lead to increased expressions of sympathy in both studies, to greater support for government efforts to help the homeless in the Qualtrics study, and to increased donations and propensity to donate in the Qualtrics study.

As the figures below illustrate, there was some variation in donation behavior based upon individual’s racial attitudes, empathetic ability, and which video they viewed. We generally observed a negative relationship between racial resentment and donations (top panel), and a positive relationship between empathetic ability and donations (bottom panel), with a few important caveats. Those at the low end of the racial resentment scale donated about $0.67 more in the Black information condition relative to the White information condition, while those high in racial resentment donated about $0.72 less in the Black conditions than in the White information condition. Racial resentment had no effect on donations when shown Whites providing reasons for their homelessness. For those with the greatest empathetic abilities, donations were approximately $1.85 more in the two White conditions, and $1.73 more in the Black information condition relative to the Black no information condition. Empathetic ability had no effect on donations when viewing African-Americans with no information regarding the circumstances of their homelessness.



On one hand, it is reassuring that our race manipulations did not reveal a systematic advantage for homeless beneficiaries who are members of one’s racial in-group (i.e. Whites). Yet, individuals’ racial biases nonetheless influenced their donation choices. Deservingness appeals worked when the recipients came from a racial group an individual was biased towards, but such appeals were not enough to overcome bias against the group. Further, individuals own capacity to empathize with those in need was associated with increased donations only when there was some relatable factor like a shared racial group or deservingness information. Overall, organizations utilizing humanizing appeals to generate financial support for their cause will do well to feature stories where the individual, regardless of their race, is not seen as responsible for their adverse circumstances.


A Matter of Principle? On the Relationship Between Racial Resentment and Ideology

Adam M. Enders, University of Louisville

Racial resentment is perhaps the most contentious – albeit most frequently used – measure of racial prejudice in American political behavior research. Where proponents see a reasonable measure with desirable statistical properties (e.g., consistently high reliability, unidimensional structure) and predictive power when it comes to things such as attitudes about racial issues, skeptics challenge the validity of the individual questions that compose the scale and suggest that such questions may be conflating several latent constructs. Perhaps the most vocal critics ­have argued that observed responses to the racial resentment questions that suggest racial prejudice are just as likely a product of adherence to conservative ideological principles. I, following others, refer to this perspective as the “principled conservatism thesis.”

While plenty of previous work has engaged this debate, very few scholars have done so with a consideration of the measurement of ideology in mind. Indeed, investigations of the principled conservatism thesis are usually undertaken using a measure of ideological self-identification, instead focusing on the statistical model, control variables, or even employing different measures of racial prejudice. However, we know from previous research that a large proportion of self-identified conservatives are not conservative when it comes to issue attitudes or other orientations toward the government. This puts a low ceiling on any potential support for the principled conservatism thesis. Given high levels of “conflicted conservatism,” and low levels of ideological constraint, I argue that self-identifications are likely an inappropriate operationalization of adherence to ideological principles.

In this manuscript, I construct several measures of adherence to conservative ideological principles using survey questions about government spending and more abstract ideas about the appropriate size and scope of government. Then, I consider the relationships between the two measures of operational ideology, the self-identification measure, and racial resentment. I find that the correlation between operational ideology and racial resentment is much lower than that between symbolic self-identifications and racial resentment. Moreover, this trend holds over time, from 1992—2016.

Finally, I consider the potential impact of principled conservatism on the observed responses to the individual racial resentment items using a methodology developed to investigate differential item functioning (DIF). Simply put, DIF is a situation in which observed responses to a given survey item are the product – either additively, or interactively – of both the assumed latent construct (e.g., racial prejudice) and some other confounding characteristic (e.g., ideology). I find very little evidence for ideology-based DIF over time across the four racial resentment items. Furthermore, what DIF I do observe is largely related to the self-identification operationalization of ideology that is inappropriate for investigating the effect of adherence to ideological principles on racial resentment.

All evidence taken together, I find little support for the principled conservatism thesis. We are, however, left with a question as to what explains the relationship between ideological self-identifications and racial resentment. The answer seemingly does not lie in adherence to ideological principles. One potential explanation is elite partisan cueing. There exists strong evidence for partisan sorting – the increasing congruence between partisan and ideological identities – among the mass public over time. If self-identified conservatives are increasingly identifying as Republicans, they are also likely being exposed to Republican messaging (to which they are more receptive) more frequently. In other words, perhaps people who identify as conservatives “learn” the language of racial resentment from elites? Or, perhaps, it is one of the other ingredients of ideological identity ­– values, group orientations, cultural connotations – that causes the correlation between symbolic self-identifications and racial resentment. Despite another piece of supporting evidence for the validity of the racial resentment scale, there are no shortage of questions regarding the measure of racial prejudice to be investigated.

Risk Attitudes and Independence Vote Choice

Robert Liñeira

Ailsa Henderson

Referendums are usually imagined as votes that prompt individuals to make decisions between two little known options, on issues of low salience and in which there is little information. If individuals do not have sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice then they are likely to fall back on predispositions such as partisanship and leader’s cues when casting their ballot. In polity-reshaping referendums, however, other predispositions such as risk attitudes may also influence the choice.

Although risk is a psychological rather than a political predisposition, we argue that it is salient to vote choice in high-stakes referendums that offer a choice of uncertain consequences. In one sense, independence referendums are unlike other referendums. There is more at stake than in, for example, a referendum on speed limits or access to alcohol. They are also typically promoted or opposed by different political parties so individuals would receive considerable cues about each option. Despite this, levels of uncertainty are high and knowledge about consequences are usually low. In addition, risk can be politicized by political parties who frame the options in independence in terms of risk and uncertainty (the risk of staying vs the risk of going; a certain present vs an uncertain future). All of this can make risk predispositions more, rather than less, important in independence referendums.

Previous efforts to evaluate the role of risk in independence referendums, in this case related to the 1995 Quebec sovereignty vote, offered differing assessments (Nadeau et al. 1999; Clarke et al. 2004). With this in mind we set out to determine whether risk mattered for independence vote choice in the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014. The Scottish referendum offers a useful case to test the direct and indirect effect of risk as there has been no other vote in a consolidated democracy with such clear consequences: a clear democratic threshold, a clear question, agreement from both governments involved on the process and a promise to accept the result. In addition, both sides referred to uncertainty and risk in their campaign messaging.

We employ a valid and reliable measure of risk that evaluates risk tolerance across various domains in a pre-post referendum panel survey. The results (see figure 1) show a strong direct effect: those more tolerant of risk were more likely to vote for change (in other words to support independence). The direct effect of risk attitudes on independence vote choice is robust to a wide range of controls such as demographics, national identification, partisanship, left-right orientations and leaders’ evaluations.

Figure 1. The Vote for Independence by Risk ToleranceLinpic1

Faced with uncertainty, risk-averse voters try to prevent losses by voting against change; more risk-tolerant voters are less affected by uncertainty and the potential for loss, and thus will reach their voting decisions by relying on other factors. In consequence, the former will tend to vote more against change than the latter. In the aggregate, the fact that a portion of the electorate tends to avoid uncertain options creates a powerful advantage for the status quo.

We know, however, that the impact of risk is unlikely to be similar for everyone.

We hypothesized that those who felt most uncertain about the consequences of independence, who demonstrated the lowest levels of knowledge or who lacked strong cues from parties would be more likely to fall back on general predispositions about risk. By contrast, individuals who followed the political process more closely and who retained greater amounts of political information would be better equipped to predict the consequences of political choices.

To evaluate this, we explored the impact of risk according to one’s knowledge, uncertainty and partisan identity. As can be seen in figure 2, politically unaware voters with a lower capacity to predict the consequences of political choices were particularly affected by their risk attitudes when making their ballot choices.

Figure 2. The Conditional Effect of Risk Tolerance on Voting Yes by Political Awareness and Involvement



Party Animals? Extreme Partisan Polarization and Dehumanization


James L. Martherus, Vanderbilt University

Andres G. Martinez, Sonoma State University

Paul K. Piff, University of California, Irvine

Alexander G. Theodoridis, University of California, Merced


The visceral, affectively-charged, identity-based, and often negative nature of partisan polarization in the United States has been the subject of much scholarly attention. A burgeoning literature on partisan dehumanization suggests a qualitative shift may be occurring—from partisan animosity to partisan dehumanization (the denial of human characteristics to out-partisans). Recent examples of dehumanizing rhetoric by elites on both sides abound: Bill Maher called Republicans “treasonous rats.” Alex Jones described Democrats as “the ultimate cowardly sacks of garbage,” Harry Reid dubbed President Trump the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster,” and Eric Trump said Democrats investigating his father were “not even people.”

In light of new work in social-personality psychology, we investigate the extent to which contemporary hyper-polarization of the electorate has devolved into a willingness by voters to apply dehumanizing metaphors to out-partisans. To do this, we bring to bear three novel large-sample, broadly representative online surveys, fielded over the course of four years, and across two presidential administrations.

We begin by looking at two different measures of dehumanization (one subtle and one blatant). This uncovers striking, consistent observational evidence that MOST partisans dehumanize members of the opposing party.

We delve into the relationships between dehumanization and important hallmarks of partisan intensity and polarization. We find that inter-partisan dehumanization is most closely related to extreme affective polarization. In addition, we show that dehumanization is associated with biased partisan-motivated reasoning and correlated with the degree to which partisans hold authoritarian/fixed worldviews.

We uncover one possible source of this troubling phenomenon with an experiment offering causal leverage to examine openness to dehumanization in the processing of new information about misdeeds by in- and out-partisans. Participants were exposed to identical information about a melee at a gathering, with the partisanship of the perpetrators randomly assigned. We find pronounced willingness by both Democrats and Republicans to differentially dehumanize members of the out-party (even when the transgression in question was the same).

These findings illuminate the nature, depth, and form of contemporary partisan polarization. Inter-partisan dehumanization may (in part) explain the increased reluctance to find common ground on political issues, and hence constitute a growing threat to the democratic enterprise. And, if not curbed, tendencies toward dehumanization may presage (as they have in other contexts) a heightening of partisan violence.

Position Taking on the President’s Agenda


Jason S. Byers, University of Georgia

Laine P. Shay, University of Utah

Do elections influence a member of Congress’s decision to engage in position-taking via casting a vote on a legislative roll call? Several scholars suggest that an increase in electoral vulnerability for a legislator should be associated with a decrease in abstention behavior in congressional roll call voting.  However, there are mixed empirical findings to support this relationship. We argue that one factor previous studies have not accounted for is the salience of the roll call vote.

We suggest that electorally vulnerable members of Congress are more likely to cast a vote on a roll call that has been publicly addressed by the president. Roll call votes that the president has publicly addressed have been shown to be more salient than those that have not received attention from the president. In particular, previous studies have found that this type of roll call vote can influence a member of Congress’s electoral prospects. Thus, it might be politically unwise for them to skip this type of salient vote. Additionally, casting a vote on these salient roll calls might help an electorally vulnerable member fend off an attack from a political challenger highlighting how the incumbent has shirked his or her legislative responsibilities. Therefore, we expect that electorally vulnerable members are less likely to abstain on roll call votes that the president has publicly addressed, compared to their electorally secure counterparts in the House of Representatives.

To test this claim, we examine all roll call votes from legislators serving in the House of Representatives between the 84th and the 112th Congress. We classify the roll call votes by two dimensions: 1) whether the roll call vote was close or lopsided in its final outcome; 2) whether the president offered a position on the roll call. We identify roll call votes that the president has publicly addressed via CQ Presidential Support Scores. Our dependent variable is the percentage of abstentions by a member in a given Congress within a classification scheme. We consider an abstention one in which a member does not cast a yea, nay, or paired vote. Using this measure, a member can potentially receive a value between zero (indicating they did not abstain on any roll call vote within a classification scheme and in a Congress) and one (indicating they abstained on all roll call votes within a classification scheme and in a Congress).

To examine the relationship between electoral vulnerability and abstentions, we estimate the coefficients with a fractional logit model. We find that for votes that the president has publicly addressed, electorally vulnerable members of Congress are less likely to abstain from voting compared to their electorally secure counterparts, regardless if the vote is lopsided or close in its final outcome. For lopsided votes that the president has publicly addressed, we find that the most electorally secure member abstains on 20 percent more roll call votes than the most electorally vulnerable member. Similarly, for close votes that the president has publicly addressed, we find that the most electorally secure member abstains on 33 percent more votes than the most electorally vulnerable member. We also find that electorally vulnerable members of Congress are less likely to abstain on close votes that the president has not addressed.  Finally, we find that a member’s electoral vulnerability has limited influence on their abstention behavior on lopsided votes that the president has not publicly addressed.  Overall, our findings suggest that electorally vulnerable members are more likely to cast a vote on a salient roll call.

Our results provide many important implications regarding legislative behavior. First, our results indicate that the type of vote matters when examining voting behavior. Salient roll calls are more likely to attract electorally vulnerable members to engage in position taking by casting a vote. Most students of legislative politics tend to aggregate roll calls when examining congressional voting behavior.  Our findings suggest that it is important for scholars to sometimes consider disaggregate roll call votes in order to uncover the precise dynamics of legislative behavior.  Second, these findings provide additional insight into the relationship between the president and members of Congress. These findings suggest that the president is a central focus in a legislator’s electoral strategy.  Lastly, previous studies find limited empirical evidence of electoral vulnerability influencing a member’s abstention behavior.  This study provides a bridge for the mixed findings regarding the relationship between competitive elections and congressional abstention.

In-Group Love Versus Out-Group Hate: Which Is More Important to Partisans and When?



Karyn Amira, College of Charleston

Jennifer Cole Wright, College of Charleston

Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, Duke University

Affective polarization is on the rise, driving historically high levels of negative feelings towards out party members. When political intergroup conflict occurs, what is the primary reaction that people have: do they run to defend their in-group, or do they lash out against the out-group? Are there conditions under which this decision changes? We test these questions in a series of 4 studies.

In our first study we gave partisans a forced choice: choose to promote an online news article that lauds their own party or one that denigrates the opposing party. Though others have shown that affective polarization leads to in-party help rather than out-party harm, our design tests which bias is primary in a non-zero sum way: either favoring the in-group (without thereby harming the out-group) or harming the out-group (without thereby favoring the in-group). Consistent with previous results, we find evidence that subjects prefer to help their own party’s reputation rather than harm the opposing party (67% to 33% of subjects, respectively).

While this is good news, we also show that this more benign form of prejudice can shift focus under situations of symbolic threat—activating out-group animosity. In a follow up study, new subjects made the same forced choice: promote the news article that helps their own party, or one that harms the opposing party. However, in this study some subjects randomly assigned to a treatment had to read another story that criticized the morality of their own partisan group (a symbolic threat) before making their forced choice. Those in this “threat condition” were more likely to shift towards punishing the opposing party compared to the control group. The figure below (from Study 2) shows the shift between people who saw the symbolic moral threat before selecting (1) vs. those who did not (0).


When we added the option to do nothing (Study 3), the moral threat still caused subjects to harm the out-party, but it also caused them to opt out entirely. In Study 4, harming the out-party became even more frequent when the targets of the moral threat were ordinary party members in the mass public (rather than elites in Washington), which could make the threat feel more personal. In Study 4, very few subjects opted out of choosing one of the two articles (noticeably more than in Study 3)—showing a higher willingness to engage in out-group denigration.

While it does not seem feasible to completely suppress our natural tribal tendencies to create group identities, fostering a positive attitude towards in-group members is more conducive to social cooperation than the denigration of the out-group. This positive tendency serves as a straightforward way to reaffirm those group identities. To that extent, showing that protection of the partisan in-group is indeed a core psychological trait is an encouraging result in an age in which polarization seems to be bringing out the worst in people.

On a more worrisome note, studies 2-4 found that a symbolic moral threat to one party’s underlying core values caused respondents to lash out at the opposing party. This response was expected, based on the literature claiming that one’s identification with a political party resembles other types of group identities (e.g., religion, sports) that constitute a significant part of one’s personal identity.

Although we are able to replicate reassuring evidence that partisans do not go out of their way to harm the opposing party, our findings also suggest that more outward, aggressive behavior could be easily triggered by threats perceived as moral. This is of especial importance in a time when articles such as “The Moral and Intellectual Bankruptcy of the Republican Party” (The Guardian), “The Deeply Immoral Values of Today’s Republican Leaders” (Huffington Post), and “The GOP’s Moral Rot is the Problem, not Donald Trump Jr.” (Washington Post) are becoming commonplace.


Not Dead Yet: Political Learning from Newspapers in a Changing Media Landscape

Erik Peterson, Texas A&M University

Local media outlets are a crucial source of information about politics, but today they face several challenges. The vast expansion in media choice brought about by the introduction of cable television and the internet means local newspapers and television stations now reach a smaller audience than in the past. Widespread staff cuts have also left these outlets with a more limited capacity to produce political news. To what extent can local media still inform the public in this changing landscape?

I take up this question by studying newspapers’ ability to inform the public about their member of Congress. This is particularly important to understand as local newspapers are the primary source of original reporting on this topic. The national media devotes limited attention to the actions of individual representatives and local television stations often rely on newspaper coverage rather than producing their own. Newspapers also exemplify the broader set of challenges facing local media, as the industry has experienced rapid declines in readership and staffing over the past decade.

To examine the effects of local newspapers, I create new measures of the fit between newspaper markets and congressional districts using the geographic distribution of contemporary newspaper sales. This measure of “congruence,” originally introduced in a 2010 study of local newspapers by James M. Snyder and David Stromberg, captures the amount of coverage about their representative in the U.S. House that public can find from the newspapers available in their area, with higher levels of congruence indicating greater coverage availability.

To measure the consequences of the newspaper environment, I pair this with the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a series of large-scale public opinion surveys conducted from 2006-2017 that include several questions assessing the public’s awareness of their member of Congress. Finally, to isolate the influence of newspapers from other factors that contribute to how much the public knows about their representative, I hold constant election-related and politician-specific variables with a research design that only uses differences in congruence that occur within a congressional district in a given year.

Using this approach, I find that the local newspaper environment continues to influence political awareness despite these challenges. For instance, a typical shift in congruence — equivalent to roughly 18 additional stories about an individual’s member of Congress appearing in newspapers during a term — produces an expected 1.4 percentage point increase in the public’s ability to assess their representative’s ideological record. A supplementary analysis indicates that even those with a limited interest in politics still benefit from the availability of newspaper coverage.

However, despite their continued influence, the broader crisis facing local newspapers has taken a toll on their ability to inform the public. In comparison to Snyder and Stromberg’s earlier study, which used a similar approach with data spanning 1982-2004, the contemporary effects of newspapers on political awareness have decreased and are now one-half to one-third their former size.

My study illustrates the importance of newspapers, particularly their continued ability to inform the public despite adverse shifts in the media landscape. At the same time, the comparison with the past shows just how much the local media’s influence has eroded. This complements a growing body of recent research that explores the political impact of changes in the local media environment (Martin and McCrain 2019, Darr, Hitt and Dunaway 2018, Hayes and Lawless 2018). Given that the challenges faced by newspapers in the United States are similar to those facing legacy media outlets around the world, this also highlights the need for more research that reconsiders theory and evidence about these outlets’ role in informing the public.