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.
But why do people shut off sympathy for a large number of victims? In one experiment, I had participants read about either one child refugee or eight child refugees from the war-torn Darfur region of Africa. Half of participants were told that later on in the experiment, they would be asked to donate money toward these victim(s).
People expect that helping eight victims costs more than helping one, so imposing a donation request created an incentive to turn off compassion. The rest of the participants were not told they would have to help; by removing the financial incentive to turn off compassion, I hoped to reverse compassion collapse.
And that’s exactly what I found. When people expected to help, they showed more compassion for one victim than for eight victims. But this reversed when people did not expect to have to help. By showing that the amount of compassion is dependent upon expected costs, the experiment revealed that we don’t face some natural limit to our compassion.
In the next two experiments, I turned from motivation to mechanism: How do people turn off compassion? Even if people are motivated to turn off their compassion, they should only be able to do so if they can skillfully regulate their emotions.
In one experiment, I had people read about one, four, or eight child refugees from Darfur. Everyone thought they would help later, so everyone had the motivation to turn off compassion.
I also assessed individual differences in how well the participants could control their emotions, which turned out to be decisive. The compassion of unskilled emotion regulators did not collapse between one and eight victims. By contrast, skilled emotion regulators restricted their compassion as the number of refugees increased.
In a follow-up study, we manipulated the ability to regulate emotion. Half of participants were told to experience their emotions freely—without trying to control them—while reading about one or eight child refugees from Darfur. The other participants were told to control their emotions as they read about the refugees. People who were told to accept their emotions without controlling them did not restrict their compassion; people who were told to regulate their emotions did, suggesting that emotion regulation causes the collapse of compassion.
How do we increase compassion?
The upshot of this research is that people can choose whether or not to feel compassion for mass suffering. This choice will depend upon whether people are motivated to avoid compassion and whether they have the skills to regulate their emotions. If we can get people past their fears of being overwhelmed, and teach them strategies for staying with rather than avoiding compassion, then we can increase their compassion bandwidth.
There are many possible short-term strategies for increasing compassion bandwidth. These strategies may be especially effective at changing motivations to avoid compassion:
- Increase the sense that helping will make a difference. Especially in situations where lots of people are suffering, we justify turning off compassion by saying that helping would just be a “drop in the bucket.” If helping organizations highlighted the impact of future donations, it could lead people to feel more compassion and act more pro-socially. For an example of how to defuse drop-in-the-bucket concerns, see this public service announcement by Direct Relief International:
- Streamline helping opportunities to make them seem less costly. After the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Red Cross encouraged people to donate $10 by simply texting the term “REDCROSS” to a pre-specified number from their smartphones. By making pro-social behavior as simple and quick as the press of a button, Red Cross was able to increase compassion and helping for many people. These efficient helping opportunities could be embedded into various social media sites—such as Facebook—to provide low-effort conduits for compassion and helping.
- Train your brain for compassion over the long term. Mind-training techniques may be better suited to increase people’s ability (rather than motivation) to experience compassion. There are many meditation traditions that encourage people to cultivate compassion toward self, family, friends, enemies, and strangers. Compassion cultivation techniques have been shown to increase positive emotions and social support, reduce negative distress at human suffering, and reduce people’s fears of feeling compassion for others. Such training programs may prevent the collapse of compassion, by letting people overcome fears of fatigue and accept their own compassion.
In ongoing work with Barbara Fredrickson, I am exploring how levels of mindfulness predict helping behavior as well as the emotions associated with helping. Mindfulness has two important sub-components: the ability to attend to the present moment and the ability to accept experiences without judging them. I found that both aspects of mindfulness predicted helping behavior.
Among those who reported helping others, present-focused attention predicted increased positive emotions—such as compassion, elevation, and joy—but did not predict negative emotions. By contrast, non-judgmental acceptance predicted decreased negative emotions—such as distress, disgust, and guilt—but did not predict positive emotions.
These findings suggest that we refine our thinking about how to build compassion toward mass suffering. Training people in present-focused attention may increase their ability to savor and sustain compassion for many victims. But training people in how to accept their internal experiences may be a necessary first step, to defuse the fears that hinder compassion from emerging in the first place.
Together, these mindfulness skills may enable people to enhance their compassion bandwidth at a time when we need our compassion to be firing at full speed.