Menus Subscribe Search
compassion-findings

(ILLUSTRATION: SARAH CLARK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Compassion Can Be Cultivated

• May 22, 2013 • 1:08 PM

(ILLUSTRATION: SARAH CLARK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests training designed to increase feelings of compassion can lead to more altruistic behavior.

Can people be taught to act more altruistically? Newly published research, measuring both brain activity and behavior, suggests the answer just may be yes.

“Our findings support the possibility that compassion and altruism can be viewed as trainable skills rather than stable traits,” a research team led by Richard J. Davidson and Helen Weng of the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes in the journal Psychological Science.

Specifically, they report that taking a course in compassion leads to increased engagement of certain neural systems, which prompts higher levels of altruistic behavior.

Brain scans revealed “a pattern of neural changes” in those who received compassion training.

The researchers describe an experiment featuring 41 people, none of whom had any experience with meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy. All participated in a two-week training program that required them to follow guided audio instructions for 30 minutes each day.

Half received “compassion training,” in which they “practiced cultivating feelings of compassion for different targets (a loved one, the self, a stranger, and a difficult person)”. The others received “reappraisal training,” in which they “practiced reinterpreting personally stressful events” with the goal of lessening their negative emotional reaction.

At the beginning and again at the end of the two weeks, participants’ brains were scanned as they employed their assigned strategy (compassion or reappraisal) while they viewed a series of images. Many of the pictures depicted people suffering, such as a burn victim and a crying child.

Finally, at the end of the two weeks, all took part in an Internet “redistribution game,” in which they witnessed unfair behavior and had an opportunity to partially rectify it. They watched as a person given $10 gave only $1 to a victim who had no money. They were then told they could spend any portion of their own $5 allotment to compel the miser to double the amount he or she gave the victim.

Those who received the compassion training spent nearly twice as much of their own money to try to rectify the unfairness: $1.14, as opposed to 62 cents for those who had taken the emotional reappraisal strategy. “This demonstrates that purely mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim,” the researchers write.

The brain scans revealed “a pattern of neural changes” in those who had received compassion training, including “neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.”

“If the signal of other people’s suffering is indeed increased by compassion training,” the researchers write, this apparently compels them to “approach rather than avoid suffering, in order to engage in pro-social behavior.”

The researchers also found neural changes in members of the other group, but the effect was quite different: In their case, greater changes in certain key regions of the brain were linked with less willingness to give money.

Davidson, Weng and their colleagues point out these participants were trained to reduce personal stress and negative emotions, and speculate they may have achieved that goal by ignoring or dismissing the problem that was presented to them.

Previous research found compassion-oriented meditation can produce changes in the brain, but it was performed on Buddhist monks who were veterans of this practice. This study finds a mere two weeks of training can produce measurable results.

So if you long to be a warmer, more caring person (which, not incidentally, is good for your health), this research presents good news: At least to some extent, the choice is yours.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.