The Science of Compassion (or Why It’s Really Human to Help Out)

Everyday, a plethora of stories arise on the Internet. A huge part of the content is probably fun, entertaining, and/or informational. Some, however, tell the tragedy of the world we live in. And if you read the news, you know that it’s so real. Other stories tell how people address that tragedy and do their share in alleviating the suffering of their fellow human beings. In our blog, we frequently showcase this kind of content — stories of people with exemplary acts of devotion and compassion or even people who do random little acts of kindness in their everyday lives.

Some people who enjoy helping out tend to do so for religious or spiritual reasons. And whether it’s Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or others, the religions of the world do have discourses of compassion. Though I myself have always been curious about a different but equally important aspect of this human tendency: is there a science behind this?

I’m glad to report: yep, there is. A study done by experimental social psychologists tested how the experience of compassion affected people’s behavior. First, participants were told that they were supposedly part of an experiment about mathematical ability and taste perception. Ostensibly, these were the instructions: participants were supposed to solve as much as they can of 20 math problems, in which they would receive 50 cents for each problem they solved correctly. After being checked and getting paid, they would proceed to the taste perception phase. Here, participants were asked to prepare taste samples for each other by pouring extra-hot hot sauce.

It seems absurd, but here’s the catch. The experimenters hired confederates to pretend to be fake participants. Let’s call the first one Dan and the second Hannah. In one version of the experiment, Dan was asked to cheat badly and very obviously on the math problems, so that the real participants would see. Afterwards, in the taste perception phase, the experimenters noticed that the real participants poured bigger servings of hot sauce to Dan the Cheater. But doesn’t this show revenge instead of compassion?

Well, in another version, Dan the Cheater was asked to do the same thing but now Hannah was gonna play a role. Before the taste perception phase, Hannah would cry and the experimenters would ask why. She’d say she recently found out about her brother’s terminal illness. Increasingly emotional, Hannah asked to be excused from the experiment. In this version, even though the participants still witnessed Dan cheating, they did not pour bigger amounts of hot sauce in the taste perception phase.

What does this show? First, the compassion that the participants felt predicted how much hot sauce they were going to give to another person. And second, more importantly, the compassion that people feel towards one person can predict how they will act towards others.

This experiment is only one of many studies that are now delving into the idea and reality of compassion. Recently, a conference has even been held to discuss it, joined by representatives from different fields such as evolutionary psychologists, clinical psychologists who deal with children suffering from trauma, charity owners who conduct social and emotional skills workshops for the youth, and others.

Using brain scans, one doctor even explained how different parts of the brain are activated when people are in a “compassionate state” or “non-compassionate state.” So interestingly enough, compassion actually seems to have physiological, neurological effects.

But now here’s the thing. My personal epiphany, if you will. We can participate in all these discussions, conduct our own experiments if we’re in the field, compile all these data, but maybe it’ll be a bit more exciting to see for ourselves. There’s all this science about compassion, we know that. But somehow I think the reality of compassion can’t be proven by numbers. Tall order but maybe here’s what we can do: go out there, help people out, and prove it for ourselves.

If you are interested in reading more scientific information about kindness or compassion, here’s a list of various quantitative and qualitative studies about the topic. Then again, if you are more keen to join the action, check out the BeepBeep Nation app and this fun video on how to get started. You might be surprised at the many ways you’ll see how compassion exists.

 

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