Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Compassion towards one person generalizes to others.

DeSteno does a NYTimes OpEd piece to point to his papers in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychyology (PDF here) and the journal Emotion (PDF here). Clips:
Whether it’s the parable of the good Samaritan in Christianity, Judaism’s “13 attributes of compassion” or the Buddha’s statement that “loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice,” empathy with the suffering of others is seen as a special virtue that has the power to change the world. This idea is often articulated by the Dalai Lama, who argues that individual experiences of compassion radiate outward and increase harmony for all.
...does the experience of compassion toward one person measurably affect our actions and attitudes toward other people? If so, are there practical steps we can take to further cultivate this feeling? Recently, my colleagues and I conducted experiments that answered yes to both questions.
The links provided give the details of the experiments, here are the abstracts, first on the generalization of compassion:
The ability of compassion felt toward one person to reduce punishment directed at another was examined. The use of a staged interaction in which one individual cheats to earn higher compensation than others resulted in heightened third-party punishment being directed at the cheater. However, among participants who were induced to feel compassion toward a separate individual, punishment of the cheater disappeared even though the cheater clearly intended to cheat and showed no remorse for doing so. Moreover, additional analyses revealed that the reduction in punishment was directly mediated by the amount of compassion participants experienced toward the separate individual.
And second, on a technique to foster compassion:
Although evidence has suggested that synchronized movement can foster cooperation, the ability of synchrony to increase costly altruism and to operate as a function of emotional mechanisms remains unexplored. We predicted that synchrony, due to an ability to elicit low-level appraisals of similarity, would enhance a basic compassionate response toward victims of moral transgressions and thereby increase subsequent costly helping behavior on their behalf. Using a manipulation of rhythmic synchrony, we show that synchronous others are not only perceived to be more similar to oneself but also evoke more compassion and altruistic behavior than asynchronous others experiencing the same plight. These findings both support the view that a primary function of synchrony is to mark others as similar to the self and provide the first empirical demonstration that synchrony-induced affiliation modulates emotional responding and altruism.


  1. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

  2. "...punishment of the cheater disappeared even though the cheater clearly intended to cheat and showed no remorse for doing so."

    That concerns me a little. I don't want heavy-handed punishment, but when an individual does wrong, it's the job of society (other individuals) to provide some sort of correction. If induced compassion eliminates corrective action, then compassion may not not always be a positive thing. The other way of looking at it would be we need to think of corrective action in terms of putting the wrongdoer on the right track rather than simply as punishment.