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Compassion Can Help Us Cross Political Boundaries

In a recent study, compassion bolsters support for mitigating climate change.

Liane Metzler/Unsplash
Source: Liane Metzler/Unsplash

True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it. –Daniel Goleman

In parts of the Pacific flooding is the new sea level. As the ocean claims more real estate, people who have called these regions home for generations are fleeing. Photographer and filmmaker Vlad Sokhin has documented these “front lines of climate change.”* Many of his photographs are featured in the Story Seeker video The World’s First Climate Refugees – a montage of flood ravaged broken buildings, turquoise oceans, and photographs of people trying to thrive amid catastrophe. In one picture a child plays a puzzle game inside the ruins of a house, an image that begs sympathy. Does tugging at our heart-strings make a difference? Hang Lu and Jonathan Schuldt of Cornell University considered the idea worthy of consideration.

In a recent study, Lu and Schuldt zeroed in on the role of compassion – that feeling we sometimes get when we see suffering. When compassion strikes, we want to put an end to misery, even if it means tossing our own needs aside. Compassion can lure us to the beach to clean bird wings after an oil spill or to clean mold out of homes wrecked by hurricanes fueled by warm ocean water. We help despite inconvenience or pain. Curbing carbon emissions demands personal change for the sake of strangers. It also requires regulatory revisions. Lu and Schuldt explored whether support for government intervention to mitigate climate change could be bolstered by feelings of compassion.

The authors assigned 400 adults (186 female, 214 males, mean age 35), recruited online, to either a high compassion condition in which they were told to focus on feelings, or a low compassion condition in which they were told to be objective and detached. Then they viewed a fake news article that featured East Africa’s “worst drought in half a century,” along with a picture of a malnourished two-year-old girl cradled in her mother’s arms. The girl is looking directly into the viewers eyes.

Lu and Schuldt found that tugging at heart-strings does have an effect. Those who were asked to focus on their feelings about the child’s plight reported a stronger sense of compassion. They were more likely to believe that the drought portrayed in the article was caused by human activities and to support government action to address climate change. Politically moderate and conservative participants** were particularly sensitive to compassion’s effects. This makes it a potential tool for communicators who, say Lu and Schuldt, want to build support for government climate change actions across the political spectrum; support that people on the front lines of climate change desperately need.

Lu, H. & Schuldt, J.P. (2016). Compassion for climate change victims and support for mitigation policy, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 192-200.

* Vlad Sokhin, The World's First Climate Refugees

** The difference between high and low compassion was insignificant for liberal's. It is likely that the compassion manipulation made no impact because they already supported government intervention.

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