Tag Archives: Compassion

The Science of Compassion — A Conversation with Professor David DeSteno

Compassion is a deep-seated value in every religious tradition. Judaism teaches that the world stands on Torah, on prayer and on acts of loving kindness. Christians celebrate the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke. And a major reason the Dalai Lama is so honored is because of his Buddhist teachings on compassion.

But compassion can also be studied scientifically, and one of the foremost researchers on compassion is Professor David DeSteno, author of the book Out Of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us and the director of the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University.

On Sunday, April 15th at 4 pm, Professor DeSteno will be speaking about the science of compassion at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about how the science of compassion can inform our religious and ethical outlooks:

GM: Does religion foster or hinder our ability to be compassionate?

DD: It’s a trickier question than one might think. There’s been a debate going on in psychological science for the past decade about the nature of morality. Do our moral sentiments spring from innate intuitions (e.g., ubiquitous evolved responses) or from conscious dictates (e.g., religious doctrines, ethical principles). There’s data to support both sides, and therein lies the reason for the ongoing debate. It’s not simply one or the other. It is true that the challenges of human social life, among which is the question of when to feel compassion and act altruistically, have existed for much longer than we’ve had the cognitive wherewithal to engage in rational analysis. So, it makes good sense that we have moral intuitions that automatically guide our actions. We never would have made it out of the “ancestral savannah” if we didn’t.

Of course, the more recent ability of the human mind to engage in abstract reasoning opened up additional ways for us to embrace (or avoid) ethical actions. The result is that we’re of two minds — an intuitive one and a deliberative one. The trick is to realize that they’re both attempting to solve the same problem — how to navigate the social world optimally. Neither “mind” is more moral than the other, and that’s the most important fact to understand in learning how to live more ethically. You can’t always trust your intuitions or your rational mind. Both are capable of leading you astray.

When it comes to compassion, I think we can all agree that most religions embrace the view that compassion is a virtue and that we should help those in need. So, at a conscious level, I think religion works to increase the likelihood that we will help others. However, religion also functions as a social category; it can divide us into “us” and “them,” into believers and nonbelievers.

What we know from our own research is that, on the intuitive level at least, how much compassion we feel for others is a direct function of how similar we feel to them. For example, our work has shown that simply having people wear similar color wristbands to denote their membership in a recently created “team” alters the levels of compassion they feel for each other. When one individual is harmed, the level of compassion another feels for him is modulated up or down depending on whether the victim is wearing the same color wristband.

Consequently, we have to be aware that while our religious beliefs may be urging us to act compassionately, our religious identities may be introducing an asymmetry into our responses. We may feel the pain of our brethren more and the pain of others less.

An interesting fact here can be seen in some traditions of Buddhist meditation. A basic technique of compassion meditation is to realize that all beings are equally similar. That technique is quite congruent with our findings. The more the mind automatically comes to see all beings as alike, the more ready it is to feel compassion equally for all in pain.

GM: What situations most bring out our compassion? What situations bring it out the least?

DD: As I’ve hinted at above, the level of compassion we feel for others is greatly influenced by whether we see ourselves in them. If you think about it, it makes great sense biologically. Feeling compassion usually motivates us to act to help others, often at a cost to ourselves. If a person were moved to feel compassion for everyone in every instance, it could become paralyzing. That person would experience constant sorrow and utilize all of her or his resources to help others. Now, this might be a noble goal, but in terms of evolutionary logic, it’s anathema.

Consequently, the intuitive mind makes us feel more compassion for those with whom we share some affiliation. Of course, that affiliation can take many different forms — familial, team membership, or group-based identities along various social dimensions (e.g., vegetarians).

In short, it’s not just the nature of the tragedy that makes us feel compassion; it’s also whether the victim is likely to help us in the future. No one would be surprised that an American soldier would feel more compassion for a wounded comrade than for a Taliban fighter who sustained the same injury. But this phenomenon of relativism is so deeply ingrained in the mind that we find the same asymmetry simply due to mirroring another’s movements. If you tap your hands in time with a person right before they are victimized, you’ll feel their pain more and work longer and harder to help them than if you didn’t tap your hands in time with them. Synchronous movement, after all, is an ancient marker for joint purpose.

GM: What’s the relationship between compassion and ethical action?

DD: Compassion, like all emotions, is a feeling state that serves as an engine for action. Once we feel an emotion, it increases the likelihood that we’ll engage in certain behaviors (or at least makes us work harder to avoid them). Fear prepares us to flee. Anger prepares us for conflict. Compassion prepares us to support others. If you accept the view that emotions function to increase adaptive responding, then it makes great sense that humans have a suite of emotional responses that impel them to build social capital. We’re a social species at heart. We depend on others to flourish. Consequently, we have to possess emotional responses that enhance prosocial actions and not just ones that are aimed at selfish pleasure or competition and aggression.

In Judaism, compassion is not primarily a feeling — it is an action. “Just as God is compassionate, we should be compassionate. Just as God clothed the naked (by making clothes for Adam), we should clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick (by going to see Abraham after he was circumcised), we should visit the sick. Just as God comforted mourners (by speaking to Isaac after his father died), we should comfort mourners. Just as God buried the dead (by burying Moses), we should bury the dead.” (Sotah 14a)

As DeSteno noted, there often is tension between our religious beliefs and our religious identities — between our religious teachings that tell us to be compassionate to all people, and the way religious groups can create an “us” and “them” mentality.

But “who we are” is very much “what we do.” If we act compassionately, we begin to view ourselves as “compassionate people.” Our sense of identity arises not only from the group we associate with, but from the actions we take.

So when we think about using religion to foster compassion, then, the focus should not be on how we strengthen our sense of identity — that simply reinforces divisiveness. Instead, as DeSteno’s research on science of compassion shows, we should aim to strengthen our values, to think about how we behave, and to consciously expand how we can “see ourselves” in others.

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The Need for Self-Compassion

We always walk a fine line when we try to create our self-image and examine our own actions. We want to stand up for ourselves, but we don’t want to become a bully. We want to treat our children as special and unique, but we don’t want them to become narcissists. We want to do a good job on a project at work, but we don’t want to be losing sleep over it.

Striking these balances can often feel like walking a tightrope — on the one hand, we want to accept ourselves where we are, and yet we also want to strive to be better. But walking a tightrope is stressful — it is far too easy to fall over one side or the other. So some researchers have wondered: is there a more effective way to help us accept our human failings and be motivated to improve?

There’s a new, emerging field that may actually help in this struggle. It’s called “self-compassion,” encouraging us to treat ourselves with the same level of kindness and understanding that we give to those we love. As a recent New York Times article notes,

[t]he research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight. (“Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges“, New York Times, 2/28/11)

What seems so promising about self-compassion is that it’s not about trying to “get what we deserve” or even striving to be happy, because working towards those goals can easily lead to self-indulgence and entitlement. Instead, aiming to treat everyone — ourselves and others — with compassion, kindness and understanding can provide a crucial context of acceptance that is much more conducive to self-improvement.

After all, think about the various methods we use to encourage the people we love when they are struggling with something. Yes, we want to push them to do better, to reach higher, to grow and to learn. But we also know that berating them, putting them down, or constantly criticizing them is not the way to do it. Instead, the most effective way to help someone improve is to place those suggestions or constructive feedback in the context of unconditional love and acceptance for the other person as a whole, simply because we care for them.

And yet providing unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves can often be harder than it looks. As the Times article explains, “People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.”

So what do we do? How do we motivate ourselves to improve without lapsing into self-criticism, and accept our failings without becoming self-indulgent?

There’s a debate in Jewish tradition that can help shed light on this issue. Two rabbis are trying to decide on the most important verse in the Torah, and one rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, argues for one of the most famous statements in all of religious literature — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, for many of us, that guideline inspires many of our ethical actions.

But there’s a problem with it — it’s relative. If we do not love ourselves, then we will never learn to love our neighbor – and if we use that model, then how we treat others will be almost completely dependent upon how we treat ourselves.

So instead, another rabbi, Ben Azzai, argues for a different verse: “In the image of God did God create humanity.” In contrast to “love your neighbor as yourself,” this verse implies an objective standard. If we view every person as having been created in the image of God, then we have responsibilities towards both ourselves and others — regardless of how we are feeling at any given moment.

So even more important than having a right to receive compassion, love, and acceptance is our responsibility to create them — for ourselves and for others. Because if we can do that, if we can act compassionately towards ourselves and towards others, just imagine how much more peaceful and more whole our world — and our selves — would be.

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