Compassion is the emotion one experiences when feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that individual’s welfare. It is different from empathy, which refers to the mirroring or understanding of another’s response; from pity, which refers to feelings of concern for someone weaker than the self; and from agape, which refers to the love of humanity.
Across numerous ethical and spiritual traditions, compassion is considered a cardinal virtue. During the age of enlightenment, philosophers argued that some force—compassion—bound people together in cooperative communities. Social psychologists have largely concerned themselves with a few questions concerning compassion. A first occurs within the altruism debate: Does compassion motivate altruistic behavior? A second question finds its relevance within the study of emotion: Is compassion an emotion? A third is within evolutionary theory: Why does compassion exist? How did it evolve? Answers to these three questions paint a fascinating picture of the most social of emotions—compassion.
The study of altruistic behavior has examined the panoply of motives guiding altruistic and charitable action. Several are self-serving, including the desire to reduce personal distress in response to another’s suffering or the goal of receiving social rewards for being helpful. C. Daniel Batson has proposed that altruistic behavior can also be motivated by an other-oriented state called empathic concern, which closely resembles the definition of compassion. Does this state motivate altruistic behavior? Indeed it does.
Over the years, Batson has conducted several studies using the easy escape paradigm. In this paradigm, a participant witnesses another participant suffer (e.g., by receiving painful shocks) and is given the opportunity to help. As the experiment unfolds, two motives are pitted against one another: First the participant is led to feel compassion for the suffering individual but is also allowed to pursue the self-interested course of action by simply leaving the study (hence the easy escape name). If altruistic behavior is observed, one can infer that compassion produces altruistic actions. Indeed, several studies indicate that when in these circumstances, people feeling compassion will forego the self-interested course of action and help, even though they must endure shocks and even when their altruistic acts will not be known by anyone. Compassion is a proximal motive of altruistic action.
What, then, are the properties of the emotion compassion? Guided by studies of emotion, which date back to Darwin (who argued that sympathy, or compassion, is the central moral emotion), researchers have compared compassion with related emotions like sadness, love, or distress. From these studies it is clear that unintended suffering is an elicitor of emotion. Compassion also produces a distinct orientation to others. When feeling compassion, people are more forgiving, they are less likely to punish perpetrators of immoral acts with severe sentences, and they are more likely to perceive similarities between themselves and disparate social groups, in particular those who are vulnerable and in need. In short, compassion amplifies the sense of common humanity.
Does compassion have a distinct expression and physiological signature? Several studies find that when feeling compassion, people show two facial muscle actions that produce the oblique eyebrows, but observers do not readily judge this display as expressive of compassion. Touch is a likely medium of the communication of compassion given its central role in affection, reward, and soothing. In several studies conducted in different countries, it has been found that individuals separated by a barrier and unable to see or hear each other can communicate compassion (and love and gratitude) reliably to one another with 1 to 2 second touches to the forearm.
And what of emotion-related physiology? One promising candidate is the effects of activation of the vagus nerve, which is controlled by the 10th cranial nerve. This nerve complex begins at the top of the spinal cord and influences facial muscle action, the larynx, respiration, heart rate, and activity in the liver, kidneys, and gall bladder. When active, the vagus nerve produces sensations of the chest opening up. Several studies suggest that vagal tone is associated with compassion. Film clips that portray harm elicit vagal tone response and helping behavior. Still slides of harm (e.g., of babies crying or children suffering from famine) and suffering do as well.
Finally, recent studies have compared the neural correlates of compassion with those of love. When people hear stories of others’ suffering, they tend to show activation in parts of the frontal lobes that are associated with empathy (e.g., the orbitofrontal cortex). They also tend to show activation in the right hemisphere, which is a region of the brain involved in negative emotions like sadness. Taken together, these studies suggest that compassion is quite distinct from distress, sadness, and love. It is a fairly distinct emotion that motivates altruistic action. The question, from a broader perspective, then, is why did compassion evolve?
No species is more social than humans. Humans raise offspring; gather, store, and prepare food; sleep; create shelter; and defend themselves, socially. In the thousands of generations that humans evolved in hunter-gatherer groups of 50 to 100 individuals, they did so in relationships, most typically, in profoundly dependent bonds that required long-term commitment and frequent self-sacrifice. Human offspring are born prematurely and require years of devoted care. Studies of hunter-gatherers find that parents cooperate with kith and kin to raise offspring while meeting the other demands of gathering and preparing food. Food-sharing relationships require that in flush times individuals share so that in times of dire need they will be the recipients of others’ generosity. Theorists of an evolutionary persuasion have begun to argue that the extraordinary sociality of humans, and humans’ interdependence, set the stage for the emergence of compassion.
In more specific terms, evolutionary theorists have made two claims about compassion. The first claim is that compassion reduces the costs of helping and increases the benefits. Compassion overwhelms self-interest and prioritizes the needs of others. The second is that compassion is likely to flourish in relationships between cooperative (rather than competitive) individuals. By implication, compassion, or kindness or trustworthiness more generally, should be readily identified in the nonverbal comportment of others. These two claims help provide theoretical context for the literatures reviewed earlier on the relationship between compassion and helping, and the emotion-like properties of compassion. They also raise interesting questions that await empirical attention.
- Batson, C. D. (1998). Altruism and prosocial behavior: The handbook of social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Keltner, D. (2003). Expression and the course of life: Studies of emotion, personality, and psychopathology from a social-functional perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1000, 222-243.