Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

The Calculus of Compassion

What determines whether we feel another's pain?

Although human suffering has always been with us, the past few months have provided several vivid examples in quick succession.  From the tragic consequences of the Japanese earthquake, to the devastated neighborhoods from tornados in the American South, to the humanitarian crisis unfolding daily in Libya, the plight of thousands has been on almost daily display. 

Yet, within the despair brought on from the images of these horrific events, we also have been elevated at times by glimpses of compassion and kindness that people have bestowed on others in need: neighbor helping neighbor in the ruins of Tuscaloosa, Japanese citizens rescuing young victims of the Tsunami from the rubble, and Tunisians welcoming in Libyan refugees to their homes.

As we see such benevolent acts, the usual reaction is often one of amazement.  We believe that the "do-gooders" must be saints.  We assume that the "goodness" must be a fundamental attribute of their character.  But in so doing, we commit an important error.  When we categorize people as compassionate or not, the result is that both our understanding of the psychological sources of compassion and our predictions for whom will experience it usually end up being incorrect.  In fact, it is often the case that those who come to the aid of another report that they were simply overwhelmed by a deep feeling of concern and an impulse to assist - feelings and actions they often will not have ever anticipated.  Indeed, as work by Daniel Gilbert, Timothy Wilson, and their colleagues has shown, people are very poor at accurately predicting what they will feel in response to hypothetical events.  The proof is always in the pudding.

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The problems that lead to misestimating a person's capacity for compassion stem from the erroneous assumption that the pain we feel for others derives from two dissociable factors:  the nature of their victimization and the character of the person observing it.  We like to believe that bigger problems on the part of a victim necessarily lead to more compassion.  Similarly, we assume that if one person helps an individual suffering a specific adversity but a second person does not, that the first person must simply have a more compassionate nature.  But, on further examination, neither of these predictions appears to hold.  People will regularly offer to buy a new ice cream cone for one a child drops while walking right past a homeless person asking for money.  Affinity for rocky-road aside, homelessness is certainly a greater burden but often results in less compassion.  In a similar vein, most people do not help every orphan or give to every charity they see, even when the level of needs are equivalent.  How are these seeming inconsistencies to be squared?

The solution is to view compassion, like any moral sentiment, not as an inherent attribute of character, but rather as a computation - a grand bargain if you will - involving an ancient calculus of the social mind.  Although coming to the aid of any in need appears to be noble goal, it is not an optimal one, at least where biology is concerned.  As Aristotle argued long ago, virtue is to be found between two vices.  It is true that complete selfishness leads to ostracism, but complete selflessness can lead one to give too much at his or her own expense.  The trick for the mind, then, is to determine when and to what degree compassion should emerge.

The nonconscious mind, like the conscious one, is always attempting to find the right balance between selfish and selfless goals.  To demonstrate how deeply embedded in the mind this phenomenon is, we conducted a simple experiment that was recently published in the journal Emotion.  We expected that the compassion any person feels is not solely a function of the objective plight of the victim or nature of the observer, but also the cues that signal the potential benefits and paybacks of coming to their aid.  Put simply, in the push and pull of selfless and selfish urges, any marker that makes a victim seem more similar to us - and thereby more likely to be willing or able to help us in return - should increase the compassion we feel holding everything else constant.

To examine this issue, we utilized a fundamental marker of group purpose:  motor synchrony.  People were asked to tap their hands on sensors as part of a purported experiment in music perception.  Unbeknownst to them, we manipulated whether they tapped synchronously or asynchronously with the person next to them.  They next saw this person be cheated in a staged interaction, resulting in the need for him or her to complete an hour of onerous work.  What happened next was rather astounding.  The simple act of moving hands together in time doubled the number of people who came to us unbidden and requested to help the victim.  What's more, it not only made them feel an increased sense of similarity to the victim, but also more compassion for his or her plight.

This and related findings clearly demonstrate that the capacity for compassion, and indeed our characters in general, are not fixed, but are determined dynamically moment-to-moment outside of our awareness in an attempt to balance the pressures of social living.  At first, this may seem dispiriting, but in actuality it can be liberating.  In the end, each of us has the potential to be not only a sinner, but also a saint.  To believe that others are inherently more compassionate is to cut ourselves short; it to consign our view of ourselves to be fixed and to assume that acts of goodness would be out of character for us.  Therein lies the problem.  Recognizing that character is fluid frees us to cultivate the view that others are similar in kind or purpose to ourselves, and thereby to cultivate compassion itself.

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David DeSteno, Ph.D., directs the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University.

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