The Science of Choosing Compassion

Think about compassion like a radio dial. We can tune our compassion up or down, but where the dial lands will depend on our concerns about being overwhelmed and on how well we can control our emotions.
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Written by Daryl Cameron

As I walk down bustling Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I often pass homeless people who ask me for spare change. Sometimes I let myself feel compassion for these individuals. But other times I don't want to get emotionally involved, so I look away and keep walking. Maybe you've had a similar experience. Pondering such experiences has led me to systematically explore the factors that influence when people feel compassion for others. The upshot of my research: You can choose to feel more compassion than you might think.

There are many cases when we don't feel compassion for others. Joseph Stalin reputedly said that a single victim is a tragedy, but a million victims is a statistic. And Mother Theresa said that if she looked at the mass of suffering people, she could not act to save them. Despite their differences, these two agree that it is difficult to feel compassion for many suffering victims. Psychological studies show that people feel more compassion for a single victim than for multiple victims, a finding that has been called "the collapse of compassion." The collapse of compassion should strike you as shocking. Most people predict that they would -- and should -- feel more compassion if more people are suffering. Yet people's emotional responses to actual victims tell otherwise. Imagine reading about either a single victim or eight victims. Experiments find that compassion doesn't simply level off with more victims -- so it's not that adding seven victims to the single victim increases compassion only a little bit. Instead, adding seven victims makes you feel less compassion compared to just one. Compassion plummets as the numbers increase.

Why would people respond like this? Some have argued that we are simply unable to feel compassion for mass suffering. However, we found evidence that the collapse of compassion instead reflects an active choice to turn off compassion for multiple victims. Psychologist Keith Payne and I conducted a series of studies testing this explanation. When there are more victims involved in a crisis, people become more afraid of being overwhelmed by their emotions. Because people are concerned that the emotional burden of many suffering victims may be too much to bear, they actively curb their compassion for many victims.

In one study, we asked participants to read about one or eight child refugees from the civil war in the Darfur region in West Africa. We also measured how well people could strategically control their emotions. Just as predicted, we found the collapse of compassion: People felt more compassion for one victim than eight victims. But critically, that pattern only showed up for people who were skilled at controlling their emotions. People who could not control their emotions didn't show the collapse -- in other words, they lacked the ability to cut off their compassion for multiple victims. These results show that strategic emotion control is necessary for the collapse of compassion. In another study, people in one group were told to freely experience their emotions while reading about one or eight Darfur refugees. People in another group were told to control their emotions while reading about these refugees. Those who were told to experience their emotions without controlling them didn't show the collapse of compassion. But people who were told to control their emotions showed the collapse. Importantly, emotion controllers didn't dial down emotions equally for one and eight victims; rather, seeing multiple victims cued them to engage extra effort to stifle their compassion.

Some have argued that we just can't feel compassion for mass suffering. Our studies suggest a different story: People can control whether they experience compassion for multiple victims. These findings have a promising upshot. If the collapse of compassion is a choice, then individuals have the capacity to change it in themselves. Think about compassion like a radio dial. We can tune our compassion up or down, but where the dial lands will depend on our concerns about being overwhelmed and on how well we can control our emotions.

There may be good reasons for curbing compassion. For instance, medical professionals who feel the most compassion for their patients are more likely to become emotionally burnt out compared to those who take a cooler, more business-like approach. Even so, compassion is a pivotal moral emotion, and we have found that curbing it has disadvantages too. People who eliminate their compassion toward suffering victims end up caring less about morality. We all have some control over where we set our dial, but beware: callousness has costs of its own.

This July, I, alongside some of the world's top researchers on compassion, will speak at CCARE's conference The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures, and Interventions. The conference is open to the public. I sincerely hope that you will join the conversation.

Daryl Cameron is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of compassion, and on how emotions influence moral decisions. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation. To learn more, visit his website.

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