How the Science Of Empathy Turns Presidential Elections



The recent loss of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid will certainly be the subject of numerous data analysis studies for many years. Why the country turned down the female in the Clinton pair is an interesting question likely layered with multiple causations.

Two Ionic Catchphrases

But as a daily observer of human behavior there is one factor that stands out to me; the philosophies contained in the phrase “the basket of deplorables” uttered by Hillary and the iconic phrase from Bill Clinton, “I feel your pain.” Both expressions caught on and inadvertently defined the candidate.



Bill was an upstart politician in the early 90’s, one of many Democrats trying to unseat the Republican president, George H.W. Bush. After recent triumphant in the Gulf War, George was riding a large wave of popularity and many believed his re-election was unstoppable.

While heckled on the campaign trail, Bill responded with his now iconic phrase, “I feel your pain.” He repeated the phrase again while accepting the democratic nomination. And during the debate between George H., he turned the momentum by convincing the audience, he did feel their pain.


In contrast, Hillary had a lifetime of tireless public service. Few apply for a job with a better resume. But in the exhaustion of the fall campaign at a fundraiser in New York, she stated, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-1-55-24-pm

Her apology was even less convincing; she agreed her percentages were off but states, “I understand your outrage, but I’m unmoved by it. If the basket fits…”

In a brief 32 words, Hillary managed to portray herself as arrogant, aloof and completely unable to see Trump supporter’s viewpoint—she lacked empathy.

Empathy Connects People

Consistently in my practice, I see the advantages of empathy. People don’t need to agree but they bond when they feel understood. They become angry when misunderstood or mocked.

When you empathize with me, or “feel my pain,” my sense of identity is connected to yours. As a result, I feel greater in some way and less alone. I may well, as a result, also start to empathize more with you, feel greater compassion and create as George H.W. Bush said, “kinder, more gentle world.”

A recent study in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) showed that clinicians who showed empathy to patients improved their motivation to stick to treatment plans and lowered malpractice complaints and improved heath outcomes.

Social psychologist Dacher Keltner, takes this idea further in Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. In it, he explores Darwin’s little-known work on human emotions and argues that survival is not based on the fittest but on who among us is the kindest.

What do we take from this in our personal lives?

Listen to others—truly feel their pain. Don’t marginalize those with who you disagree. Empathy is not only vital in presidential races but in communities and families as well. Be kind.



Camille Curtis Foster, LCSW 801.472.7134

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Check out Provo’s mayor’s call for more civility in government:






















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