All the major religions place great importance on compassion. 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.
As a social psychologist interested in the emotions, I long wondered whether this spiritual understanding of compassion was also scientifically accurate. Empirically speaking, 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.
In one experiment, designed with the psychologist Paul Condon and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we recruited people to take part in a study that was ostensibly about the relation of mathematical ability to taste perception — but that in actuality was a study of how the experience of compassion affects your behavior.
Each experimental session consisted of three individuals: a real participant and two confederates (i.e., people who secretly worked for us). First, the participants were told that they had four minutes to solve as many of 20 difficult math problems as they could and that they would receive 50 cents for each one they solved correctly. Twenty was far more than the typical person could do; the average number solved was 4. After time expired, the experimenter approached each person to ask how many problems he or she had solved, paid the person accordingly, and then had the person place his or her work in the shredder.
The situation was rigged so that the experimenter would run out of money just before paying the last person, Dan, who was a confederate. While the experimenter left to get more money, Dan dumped his work into the shredder in full view of everyone. When the experimenter returned, Dan reported that he had completed all 20 problems and had already shredded his work to save time. The experimenter paid him the full $10. But it was obvious to all that Dan had cheated. (There was also a “control” variation in which Dan did not cheat.)
Everyone then moved on to the “taste perception” phase. Here, participants prepared taste samples for one another, and the real participants were assigned to prepare the taste sample for Dan. The sample they had to prepare required them to pour extra-hot hot sauce into a small cup. They were led to believe that whatever they poured into the cup would be placed in Dan’s mouth in its entirety. What did they do? They did exactly what you would expect: those who saw Dan cheat poured more hot sauce into the cup — three times more, on average — than did those who did not witness the cheating. In so doing, they were intentionally acting to cause him pain.
But what of compassion? In a third variation, we had Dan cheat, but before preparing the taste samples, the other confederate, Hannah, began to sniffle and tear up. When the experimenter asked her what was wrong, she said that she had recently learned that her brother had received a diagnosis of a terminal disease. With increasing tears she asked to be excused and the experimenter complied. The participants and Dan then continued as before, though with quite different results: participants who saw Dan cheat poured no more hot sauce than did those who did not witness his cheating.
Before preparing the taste samples, we also had the participants fill out a questionnaire about their present feelings (among other items). The degree of compassion they were feeling directly predicted the amount of decreased hot sauce they poured for Dan.
It seems, then, that the Dalai Lama is right: the experience of compassion toward a single individual does shape our actions toward others.
In another study, published in the journal Emotion, the psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I conducted an experiment ostensibly about music perception — but that actually investigated how feelings of compassion might be increased.
Our hunch was that compassion is easiest to feel when you have a sense of commonality with someone else. So we paired up participants in teams: one real participant and one confederate. First, they had to tap their hands on sensors to tones played over earphones. In some cases the tones led them to tap their hands in synchrony; in other cases, the tones led them to tap their hands in a random mismatching manner.
We next had the participants watch their tapping partner get cheated by another confederate, which resulted in the partner’s erroneously being assigned to complete a stack of onerous word problems. As our participants were leaving, they were informed by an automated message that if they desired, they could help complete some of the work assigned to their partners. If they did so, we timed how long they spent working on the task.
The results were striking: the simple act of tapping one’s hands in synchrony with another caused our participants to report feeling more similar to their partners and to have greater compassion for their plight: it increased the number of people who helped their partner by 31 percent and increased the average time spent helping from one minute to more than seven.
What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.
What does this mean for cultivating compassion in society? It means that effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. There is nothing special about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.
Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of commonalities would generate greater empathy among all of us — and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way.
David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is a co-author of Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us.