You Can Buy Empathy for $12 - OZY | A Modern Media Company

You Can Buy Empathy for $12

You Can Buy Empathy for $12

By Nathan Siegel

SourceRobert Daly/Getty


Because new research shows that money could grease the wheels of negotiation and stamp out preconceptions.

By Nathan Siegel

Everybody and everything has a price. Including empathy.

Conflict between Palestinians and Israelis or Republicans and Democrats appears intractable in part because of one fundamental bias: We misunderstand the other group’s motives. When Republicans attack Democrats, Democrats think they’re motivated by hate, but Republicans believe they’re motivated by love and “ingroup” loyalty. And vice versa, of course. That’s according to a study published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, and it bodes ill for negotiation and compromise.

But a simple cash offering could ease the tension and reverse the bias, the study shows.

By rewarding accuracy with cash, “People think more carefully and critically about their beliefs” and come to different conclusions, says the study’s co-author Jeremy Ginges, an assistant professor of psychology at The New School. While financial incentives could be seen as inappropriate or even “insulting” in some contexts, the idea that creative interventions can change bias, improve both parties’ willingness to negotiate and encourage optimism for good outcomes is a very significant finding, says Ginges. 


To identify the bias — Ginges & co. believe their work is the first to illuminate it — the study surveyed 661 American Democrats and Republicans, 995 Israelis and 1,266 Palestinians. It asked participants to identify what drove the other group to conflict:

Do Israelis bomb Gaza because of:

a) love for Israel, or

b) hate for Palestinians?

The vast majority of Palestinians believe the latter — on a scale of 1 to 4, where 4 is “certainly yes,” they registered 3.38, on average. At the same time, Palestinians believe their central motivation is love for one another (3.34). Results for Israelis, Democrats and Republicans were all strikingly similar. 

So throwing money at problems does work. Right? 

But what to do? First, Ginges and co-authors Adam Waytz and Liane Young tried a soft push. They asked Republicans and Democrats to put themselves in the other’s shoes. No effect, says Ginges. But when offered $12 for being more accurate, righties and lefties alike took a look in the mirror and found empathy. The bias was flipped on its head — subjects were more likely to think the other group was motivated by “ingroup” love rather than “outgroup” hate. 

So throwing money at problems does work. Right?

Other studies give a cautious “Yes.” While the Ginges et al. study may be the first to test financial incentives on conflict motivation bias, it’s not the first to measure how cash rewards affect empathy. After showing that women were more empathetic, a University of Oregon study was able to even the playing field by offering both men and women money rewards. So, men just need more incentive to empathize.

Naturally, further research is needed. “We want to identify which incentives work best and when,” says Ginges. Offering your spacey boyfriend money to listen to you, senators money to compromise or Palestinians and Israelis money to come to the negotiating table may sound crass. But have we not tried everything else?

This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 30, 2014.

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