Research Shows Why "Learning" Compassion Leads to Altruism

When people teach themselves compassion, altruistic behavior increases.

Posted Jun 08, 2013

It’s good to see research that demonstrates our capacity to awaken and evolve our consciousness and become more fully “human” – in our mental perspectives, our emotions and our behavior towards others. Two recent strands of such research illustrate this.  One is the increasing, legitimate research on the beneficial powers of psychedelic drugs, especially psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy), being conducted after a long stretch of unwarranted legal prohibition. The other strand provides accumulating knowledge of how we are able to alter our brain, our attitudes and conduct through conscious effort and practice. And, that meditation is powerful vehicle for this. 

For example, new research demonstrates that you can “learn” compassion through specific meditative practices fairly quickly; and, intriguingly, that teaching yourself to become more compassionate directly translates to altruistic behavior. This latest study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded by Richard Davidson, the leading researcher in this field, investigated whether you can train adults to become more compassionate; and whether that results in greater altruistic behavior and changes in related brain activity. Well, you can, and it does.

The lead author of the study, Helen Weng, stated that “Our fundamental question was can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?  Our evidence points to yes.” 

Published in Psychological Science, the study trained people in a type of Buddhist meditative practice that focuses on compassion. The aim of this practice is to increase feelings of care and empathy for people who suffer. For example, participants pictured a time when someone was suffering, and then focused on a desire for the person’s suffering to be relieved. They repeated some phrases to aid their focus, such as “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”

The research had participants focus on different groups of people, ranging from people they knew, to strangers, to enemies.  They began with someone they cared about in real life, towards whom they could probably feel compassion for more easily. Then, they focused on strangers. That’s harder, because we tend to be more indifferent or non-reactive towards people who are not connected with our own lives.

The most interesting focus, in my view, is that they practiced compassion towards someone they were in conflict with. I’ve found the latter to be especially useful with psychotherapy patients as well business consulting clients. That is, whether in conflict with a family member or someone at work – someone you might have a very adversarial conflict  with – that practice pulls you “outside” of your own self-preoccupation, and towards viewing the world through that person’s eyes, including how that person might be hurting.  That builds compassion and can change your behavior towards the person.

The research included a control group that was instructed to just “reframe” their thoughts towards less negativity. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks.

The overall aim of the research was to determine if people could alter their conscious in a short period of time, and if that led to being more altruistic in their behavior. The latter was tested in an experimental situation: A game called “Redistribution,” in which participants were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need. They played it over the Internet with two anonymous players, the “Dictator” and the “Victim.” The Dictator shared an unfair amount of money with the Victim. They then decided how much of their own money to spend to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim. 

The  researchers found that participants who were trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained to cognitively reframe their mental attitudes.

To observe how this shift affected the brain, the researchers looked at changes in MRI scans, before and after training. In the MRI scanner, participants were exposed to images of suffering, such as a crying child or burn victim. They used the practice they had engaged in to generate feelings of compassion towards the suffering people.  The control group saw the same images but was instructed to just reframe their thoughts in more positive ways.

From the beginning to the end of the training, researchers found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering. Brain activity increased in a region of the brain that’s involved in empathy and compassion towards others. Compassion training also increased activity in regions that involve emotional regulation and positive emotions.

Weng pointed out that the participants seemed to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, and learned to regulate their emotions so that they experienced caring and wanting to help, rather than turning away.

This and other ongoing research shows that you can enhance compassion with training and practice. Davison, the Center’s founder and senior author of the study, said that  “The fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable,” and ”There are many possible applications of this type of training. Compassion and kindness training in schools can help children learn to be attuned to their own emotions as well as those of others, which may decrease bullying. Compassion training also may benefit people who have social challenges such as social anxiety or antisocial behavior.”

I would add that it could also help our elected Representatives and Senators. If they could learn compassion, that might trigger some altruistic behavior -- legislation -- that help the people who suffer each day because of ongoing political gridlock.

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2013 Douglas LaBier