InitiativesPolitical Empathy Lab (PEL)

Political Empathy Lab (PEL)

Listening with Heart and Mind

Political Empathy Lab (PEL) seeks to create a repertoire of approaches designed to integrate the emotional and cognitive pieces necessary during dialogue across difference.  Political Empathy Lab also functions as a “gym” so students can regularly exercise these practices around dialogue and understanding.   



Map of Pennsylvania and surrounding states with red pushpin through Harrisburg.

Researchers at Penn and beyond are studying affective polarization.  PEL continues this work and applies it by equipping Penn students to connect with others by attuning themselves to their own thoughts and feelings as they listen to different points of view.  It strives to develop and cultivate practices for both the outer conversation and the inner conversation.  These practices and the regular exercise of them, especially the practice of listening, builds social trust and is a necessary precondition for deliberative democracy. Some of the practices are explored, refined, and exercised in the spring course PSCI 4201 Political Empathy and Deliberative Democracy.

Empty roadway in a vast landscape with mountains at the horizon.
Travel around Pennsylvania with us this summer.

Additional practices will be discovered with undergraduates democratically, collaboratively, ethnographically, and inductively through a trip during the Summer of 2024 to visit counties across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania beyond the Philadelphia region.  The research experience will consist of several mini trips to encounter Pennsylvanians across the state who hold different socio-political views.   This research experience is deliberately not canvasing and not polling (though we will work with Penn’s Public Opinion and Election Studies (PORES) team to inform our practices).  It is not intended to extract policy positions from Pennsylvanians but instead to engage with them using specific practices to cultivate emotional regulation while listening to diverse political opinions.1 

PEL’s research trip is also not tourism but an opportunity to meet fellow residents of Pennsylvania within the state acknowledging that we experience different lived realities and want to try to better understand each other.  The hope is that this experience will sharpen and awaken our intellectual humility and curiosity around ideologies and beliefs that differ from our own. An additional aspiration is that we might understand how place may  connect to ideology as well as the role that super-ordinate identities may hold to our sense of belonging.  Finally, this trip provides diverse immersive opportunities to regularly exercise our practices around dialogue and engagement. 

Why did PEL choose PA?

  • 2024 is an Election year and Pennsylvania is a swing state
  • This would allow Penn students to encounter “the other side” of issues where there may appear to be consensus at Penn
  • This would likewise allow folks in other communities in Pennsylvania to encounter Penn students with the aspiration of dispelling myths about so called “elites”
  • Pennsylvania has regional variation and both rural, suburban and urban counties providing an in-depth social and political analysis of one state 
  • Pennsylvania is the state in which Penn is located.  As an institution we often discuss our local identity as Philadelphians but less frequently our identity as Pennsylvanians

Some of these practices will be explored, refined, and exercised in the SNF Paideia spring course, PSCI 4201 Political Empathy and Deliberative Democracy.

To learn more about Political Empathy, listen to our Podcast series on Political Empathy with three episodes,“Political Empathy: American Conservativism, Its Past, Present and Future.”, Political Empathy: Perspectives from Psychology and Urban Studies and Political Empathy: Space, Place and Positionality


Follow the Political Empathy Lab Summer 2024 research team with a special edition of The Park podcast. Six new episodes will drop over the course of the summer. Travel with us this summer! Listen to the trailer below.


Have questions about the project and want to learn more? Please email Dr. Lia Howard at

Read more about PEL and the research team in the project press release here.

Political Empathy Lab gratefully acknowledges our funding from the Office of the Provost and the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women.

1This project acknowledges and seeks to explore whether there are limits to our political empathy—namely if there are identities, we may hold that feel particularly vulnerable during certain moments and in certain contexts.  For example, those who hold minority identities might not want to take on the emotional labor of listening to views that might deny their humanity. This is an idea that we will wrestle with in Political Empathy Lab.  Though we are building muscles of engagement, self-awareness of one’s own positionality vis a vis others in conversation might lead participants to discern when to lean on other members of the research team.  This type of community building within the team requiring both allyship and self-knowledge is also an important component of the trip. 

Finding Common Ground
Faculty, Staff and Fellows enjoying lively conversations at the SNF Paideia Event: “Finding Common Ground,” September 21, 2023. Photo credit: Ketterick Waddell, SNF Communications Staff.