from The Greater Good Science Center
Many of us assume that we only have so much compassion to spare. But research says we can build our capacity to alleviate suffering.
Compassion is a powerful moral emotion—it moves us to care for the suffering of others, and enables us to live cooperatively with one another.
Yet we live in a society of constant connection, in which the successes and sorrows of others are brought to us instantly through phones, computers, TV, radio, and newspapers. With that increased connection comes the risk of becoming overwhelmed or overburdened by our emotions. Fearing exhaustion, we turn off our compassion.
But my research suggests we can actually expand our compassion bandwidth without hurting ourselves. As the science of compassion develops, we can find empirically supported ways to cultivate and sustain compassion when it is needed the most
Why does compassion collapse?
When asked, people predict that they will feel more compassion when many are suffering than when a single victim is suffering. Moreover, some attach moral weight to this prediction: if there are more lives at stake, then we should feel more compassion and do more to help.
But when you measure people’s emotional experiences in real time—rather than their predictions—a very different pattern emerges. Rather than feeling more compassion when more people are suffering, people ironically feel less—a phenomenon my colleague Keith Payne and I call “the collapse of compassion.”
People feel more compassion for one than for many. You may find this result surprising. It’s not that adding more victims to a single victim only increases compassion a little bit, in a diminishing emotional return. When faced with many victims, people feel less compassion than they would have if they had just seen one victim. Precisely when compassion is needed most, it is felt the least.
Why does the collapse of compassion occur? Some have argued that we are simply unable to feel much compassion for many victims. But in collaboration with Keith Payne, I developed a different theoretical account and designed a series of experiments to test it.
We find that when there are more suffering victims, people think they will feel more compassion. Given this expectation, people may become concerned about the financial and emotional costs of intense compassion. Compassion for many victims can be seen as an expensive proposition—one that will not make much of a difference. People may also become worried about being overwhelmed or burned out by compassion for many sufferers.
For these reasons, people may actively and strategically turn off their compassion. According to our theory, compassion collapse is not due to a limitation on how much compassion we can feel. Instead, it’s the end result of people actively controlling their emotions.