An exploration of the activation of sympathy in relation to economic inequality and the poor
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As economic inequality in the United States continues to increase, the ways in which Americans cope with and conceptualize the issue itself as well as the disadvantaged groups affected by it has become increasingly salient features of their political attitudes. While important research has been done, particularly by Bartels (2009), showing that Americans share widespread consensus that economic inequality is a negative feature of American society and that Americans do not harbor any innate antipathy towards the poor, more work needs to be done to understand what activates Americans’ sympathy for the poor. This study, building on Burden and Klofstad’s (2005) assessment into the effects of cognitive and affective priming, seeks to understand how issue and subgroup framing alters political expression. I find that the use of the word “feel” in survey questions—as opposed to the word “think”—makes respondents more likely to hold poor subgroups less accountable for their economic circumstances. However, this differential outcome does not manifest when applied to policy-based questions. This indicates that invoking person- or group-based arguments along with affective signifiers shows the best promise for activating sympathy for the poor among Americans.