It’s natural to feel concern for others. When we feel compassion for those who are suffering, it aids us in protecting each other from harm and righting moral wrongs. This compassionate instinct has helped humanity as a whole to survive and thrive.

And yet, we don’t care for everyone equally. For example, we feel more empathy for people who are like us or part of our community. We have an easier time feeling compassion towards one person than feeling it for the masses, whom we might feel powerless to help. Within our groups, research has found that compassion can lead to a desire to extend preferential treatment to someone who seems to be suffering, even when it seems unfair to others.

Now, a new study suggests that empathy for those who have suffered can lead to harsher punishments for those who may have caused the suffering—but only when no other option to alleviate the suffering is available. In other words, when steps like supporting the victim, facilitating apology, or discussing the problem aren’t on the table, people seem to want to express compassion for the victim of a misdeed by punishing the person who inflicted the suffering.

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“The consequences of compassion are generally positive—we want to help a person who is suffering,” says the paper’s lead author, Stefan Pfattheicher of Aarhus University in Denmark. “But, when people don’t have the opportunity to help, we might want to harm the perpetrator.”

Punishing out of compassion

In an experiment, Pfattheicher and colleagues introduced participants to the story of “George”—a 70 year old who’d had a shoulder injury and was in a lot of pain. Some participants were given instructions to think carefully about how George was feeling and to imagine his discomfort—to aid them in feeling increased empathy for him. Other participants were told to read the story dispassionately and to remain detached.

After making sure these instructions resulted in two groups with higher and lower levels of empathic concern for George, the researchers had participants read the rest of George’s story—that his shoulder was injured by a young man who purposely bumped into him to make him fall. Participants who’d been induced to feel more empathy reported greater moral outrage and were more willing to endorse statements like, “I want to teach the young man a lesson” and “I want the young man to be severely punished” than those in the objective, detached group.

Why would this be?

  • A Scientific Note

    Empathy and compassion are related but distinct concepts. Empathy is the ability to sense or imagine other people’s emotions and thoughts; compassion is the motivation to relieve suffering. Empathy often leads to compassion.

Pfattheicher suggests that we humans are sensitive to moral issues, and that when we witness a wrongful act, we are motivated to punish wrongdoers in order to create a sense of fairness or justice. Empathy may make us more sensitive to the morality of a situation and, by doing so, increase that tendency to express compassion with punishment.

Though being sensitive to morality is clearly positive, he argues that it can be a problem when a compassionate person cannot respond to a suffering victim in a directly helpful way.

For example, he says, a judge in a courtroom case might mete out greater or less punishment for an accused hit-and-run driver depending on whether the judge feels more or less compassion for the alleged victim, which could lead to unequal sentencing. And other research has shown that we’re more likely to feel empathy and compassion for people if we have something in common with them—like race or social class. Or, a person might learn about a faraway terrorist attack, feel concern for the victims, and increase their support for retaliatory bombings, which could escalate to war—which typically results in making everything worse, not better.

“From a societal perspective, if you feel moved whenever another person is suffering or harmed by a third party, this might not be a good thing, as it might increase harmful behavior toward [alleged] perpetrators,” he says.

The complex role of compassion in justice

The story doesn’t end with these findings—or the researchers’ interpretations of the findings.

The design of the experiment might have led to unwarranted conclusions. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center, argues that there are very few situations in real life where people’s only option is to punish—where there is no possibility of helping the victim or otherwise addressing the problem.

“People always have a choice whether to direct the motivation and intentionality of compassion towards harming perpetrators, supporting victims, or trying to understand or address the circumstances that lead to the harm to begin with,” she says.

Like Pfattheicher, she sees compassion for suffering victims as leading to a desire to correct wrongs, playing an important role in justice. The compassionate people in Pfattheicher’s study, she says, may have been motivated to punish wrongdoers in order to protect victims and others in the community from future harm.

“If compassion did not lead to motivation to restore justice, to protect the wider community from harm, then it would just be touchy-feely and leave everyone vulnerable to exploitation,” she says.

  • Shared Identity

    Shared Identity

    How to encourage concern for others by finding commonalities with them

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The study lends some credence to this view by showing that someone feeling compassion only wanted to punish people more who’d intentionally caused the harm. If, for example, participants were told that the young man in George’s story bumped into him by accident, there were no differences in the severity of punishment endorsed by those who felt more compassion for George than for those who felt less compassion.

“This means that where there is no explicit injustice, compassion doesn’t influence motivation to punish,” she says. “Instead, compassion is discerning.”

Finally, priming people to think only about punishment may have affected results. In an unpublished experiment, Pfattheicher says, he found that given the choice to help a suffering victim or to punish a perpetrator, compassionate people will help more and punish less. These findings mirror prior studies, lending support to the idea that compassion is generally helpful in justice scenarios.

In addition, the researchers didn’t try to tease out empathic distress—negative feelings we feel ourselves when we focus on another’s suffering—from empathic concern. This sense of distress could have made participants more likely to lash out at the cause of suffering, which past studies suggest is possible.

“We didn’t disentangle the distress from the concern part [of empathy]—so that’s a problem with the research,” says Pfattheicher. “We don’t know which is driving the effect.”

Using compassion wisely

Even if there were a dark side of compassion, the solution can’t be to discourage it overall, given its importance in relationships and care.

Simon-Thomas points to research showing that white doctors tend to show less care for black patients than white patients—presumably because it’s easier to empathize with white patients if you’re white—and rhetorically asks what people should do about it.

“Provide less compassion towards the white and the black woman—and poorer care for everyone?” she says. “While that may be ‘fair’ it’s clearly not ideal. “

Instead, extending our circle of care—meaning, trying not to judge any one person’s pain as less valuable than anyone else’s—may be what’s needed. After all, prior research on compassion training has shown that helping people to extend compassion generally and presenting them with scenarios similar to those in Pfattheicher’s study makes them want to punish others less, not more.

Even Pfattheicher agrees there may be promise in these kinds of trainings—especially if they temper our desire for unfair punishment.

“I’m really in favor of compassion trainings,” he says, “if they can expand the focus of morality not only to your inner circle, but also to humanity in general.”

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