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A Study of the Effect of Empathy on Public Opinion on Immigration


With his January 29, 2013 immigration speech, President Obama made his bold and confident case for comprehensive immigration reform. Yet, the likelihood that an acceptable immigration bill passes Congress is not at all certain. Much could depend on which side is able to most effectively frame the debate and win over public opinion. What is clear is that proponents of immigration reform are making significant use of a particular emotional appeal...empathy. Will the gamble on an emotion-heavy, empathetic strategy be able to sway public opinion and thus, members of Congress? Previous research finds that inducing empathy can improve intergroup attitudes. But, little has been done on the connection between empathy and support for immigration policies. In my research, I analyze news coverage on immigration policy to see how empathetic framing varies across news sources. I also conduct experiments to test whether empathetic news coverage increases support for permissive immigration policies (i.e. path to citizenship). In short, I find empirical support for my expectations. Most striking, I find that empathetic effects increasing support for these permissive policies are substantial especially among individuals with no contact with undocumented immigrants and among those predisposed to empathize in general.

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