Is compassion a moral force? The answer, according to many spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, is a resounding yes. The experience of compassion, they assert, has a radiating effect, extending kindness and forgiveness toward others, even those who have intentionally transgressed. If this is true, it suggests that compassion has the potential to stand as a counterweight to desires for punishment and revenge - a force capable of inhibiting actions that typically result in escalations of violence. The difficulty, of course, in evaluating this provocative view is that separating the experience of compassion from other factors can be problematic. For example, some people may be more forgiving than others, or some transgressors may be more forgivable based on the nature of their apologies, intentions, relationships with the forgiver, or even physical characteristics. Yet, if compassion is (a) capable of functioning as a brake on aggression and (b) radiates outward, the implications are great, both scientifically and practically.
But how to test this idea? The trick is to use a situation where the nature of the interactions can be controlled, and as Paul Condon from the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University has shown, the phenomenon of third-party punishment offers the perfect solution. Third-party punishment is a fairly ubiquitous occurrence wherein people will seek to punish one individual for transgressing against (i.e., usually "screwing-over") another. The idea is that for a society to maintain order, people need to enforce the norms, even if they themselves are not the victims of the transgression. So, borrowing a paradigm developed by Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School and her colleagues, Paul used a scenario where research participants would work individually on math problems - the more they solved, the more money they would get paid. However, the situation was constructed so that the final participant in a session (who really worked for Paul) would sometimes cheat and thereby end up with an inordinate amount of money from the experimenter that he truly didn't deserve. All the other participants had already recorded their scores, so they couldn't cheat as well, but were clearly aware that the "ringer" cheated. When they were later given an opportunity to punish him for his actions, they were merciless - they chose to cause him pain. Third-party punishment - pure and simple.
But there was one more wrinkle. In a final condition, everything unfolded the same way with one exception. Right before participants were given the option to punish the cheater, one of them (another "ringer" or confederate as such people are known) was seen to tear up and sniffle. She noted her distress over a family situation to the experimenter and was then excused form the experiment. What happened next was astounding. Virtually no punishment of the cheater occurred. Participants still had seen him willfully cheat to gain money. They still knew that he offered no apology or showed no remorse. Yet, they chose not to punish him. In fact, the degree to which each person resisted punishing him was directly associated with the level of compassion they were feeling in response to the crying they had just witnessed (compassion had been assessed as part of a larger emotional state measure that participants completed). You can find the complete research article here.
These results are striking in that they demonstrate that compassion experienced for one person can instantaneously extinguish punishment for another. In short, the Dalai Lama may just be right - compassion may function to balance social systems so as to prevent escalating tit-for-tat aggression and downward spirals of prosocial behavior. What's more, this radiating ability may explain why sometimes any of us can be more forgiving toward someone than we ever would have predicted.