Compassion Begets Compassion

Science shows this to be true and we knew it all the time

Posted Jul 19, 2012

A recent essay in the New York Times called "Compassion Made Easy" by David DeSteno, a professor of pscyhology at Northeastern University, made me think about what we know about compassion in nonhuman animals (animals). 

As Dr. DeSteno puts it, "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."

I contacted Dr. DeSteno and he told me about an exciting meeting taking place this week in Telluride, Colorado called "The Science of Compassion". A group of renowned scholars will be talking about various aspects of compassion and I regret I can't be there because I would like to see more discussion about compassion in nonhuman animals from an ethological/animal behavior perspective. I would also like to see more non-invasive research on animals that speaks to questions about compassion and empathy

I was very excited to read about his and others' research in this area that focuses on humans because for years I've been suggesting just this, namely, that "compassion begets compassion" (see also and also). I've also written about how we can and must expand our compassion footprint and about an "umbrella of compassion" that reflects how compassion can be contagious and envelop people even without their knowing it. It's also noteworthy that there is research that shows that vegetarians and vegans are more empathic than omnivores

While I didn't have a broad and strong data base to support my intuitions I've experienced this in various venues. In my research on animal emotions (see also) I've written stories about how compassion can spread across a group of indivduals—when one animal cares for another group member other group members join in. As DeSteno notes, "This idea is often articulated by the Dalai Lama, who argues that individual experiences of compassion radiate outward and increase harmony for all."  We also know that many different animals display empathy, including mice, rats, and chickens. And, we also know that animals are far nicer to one another than previously thought and that cooperation and empathy are widespread among a wide variety of species (see also). 

Compassion behind bars

I've also seen contagious compassion in my work with inmates in my Roots & Shoots group at the Boulder County (Colorado) Jail. Many of the guys over the years (both in jail and when I've seen them after they've been released) have told me that they've developed more compassion for humans and other animals by talking about it and seeing videos of compassion and empathy in animals.

A discussion about Buddhism and compassion resulted in one of the inmates making the most amazing soap sculptures reflecting the influence of the Buddha. He began with tiny bars of soap and melted them together with his hands, made paint brushes using his own hair, and fashioned different colors from the food he was served. Here's one of his incredible pieces of art. 


A soap sculpture by an inmate at the Boulder County Jail

All of the inmates were very impressed with his artwork and when we had discussions we all agreed that compassion can beget compassion, that simply talking about this and seeing examples from different animals made the guys felt better about themselves and others. Some didn't realize it was happening until we discussed it.

I was really touched by these discussions. Just a few weeks ago I received an email from one of my past srudents in which he wrote, "I find myself today spending much more time outdoors, and reliving my teenage years in the woods and mountains. I feel your class helped me rediscover what it means to love and respect our world, our ecosystems."

I'm sure that as time goes on we'll see more research on how compassion can easily spread among individuals in various species, and indeed, it's this process that is an essential part of my own project on rewilding our hearts and reconnecting with all aspects of nature (see also a new book from Orion magazine for a series of essays on what we need to do to build a better future).

It's clear that conflict and war don't work and that the future of all animals, human and nonhuman, depends on the development of a science of peace, or, as ethologist Peter Verbeek calls it, "peace ethology" (see also) that reflects our true nature. This sort of movement inspires me and gives me hope for the future. We really can do much better than we've done and it's consistent with who we really are. 

The teaser image of Grace helping Eleanor stand up can be found here