NYTimes: The Science of Compassion_Featured_, Conscious Living, Universal Principles Applied Sunday, July 15th, 2012
Gray Matter: Compassion Made Easy
By David DeSteno, July 14, 2012
ALL the major religions place great importance on compassion. Whether it’s the parable of the good Samaritan in Christianity, Judaism’s “13 attributes of compassion” or the Buddha’s statement that “loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice,” empathy with the suffering of others is seen as a special virtue that has the power to change the world. This idea is often articulated by the Dalai Lama, who argues that individual experiences of compassion radiate outward and increase harmony for all.
As a social psychologist interested in the emotions, I long wondered whether this spiritual understanding of compassion was also scientifically accurate. Empirically speaking, does the experience of compassion toward one person measurably affect our actions and attitudes toward other people? If so, are there practical steps we can take to further cultivate this feeling? Recently, my colleagues and I conducted experiments that answered yes to both questions.
In one experiment, designed with the psychologist Paul Condon and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we recruited people to take part in a study that was ostensibly about the relation of mathematical ability to taste perception — but that in actuality was a study of how the experience of compassion affects your behavior.
Each experimental session consisted of three individuals: a real participant and two confederates (i.e., people who secretly worked for us). First, the participants were told that they had four minutes to solve as many of 20 difficult math problems as they could and that they would receive 50 cents for each one they solved correctly. Twenty was far more than the typical person could do; the average number solved was 4. After time expired, the experimenter approached each person to ask how many problems he or she had solved, paid the person accordingly, and then had the person place his or her work in the shredder.
The situation was rigged so that the experimenter would run out of money just before paying the last person, Dan, who was a confederate. While the experimenter left to get more money, Dan dumped his work into the shredder in full view of everyone. When the experimenter returned, Dan reported that he had completed all 20 problems and had already shredded his work to save time. The experimenter paid him the full $10. But it was obvious to all that Dan had cheated. (There was also a “control” variation in which Dan did not cheat.)