How does empathy differ from compassion? What are the best strategies we should employ to influence one another to be more caring?
We spoke with Dr. David DeSteno, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University , about how science can bring us closer to the ideal of g’milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.
This program is part of the project “Science Education for Jewish Professionals,” a series of webinars run by in partnership the American Association for the Advancement of Science Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, in partnership with Sinai and Synapses, hosted by Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Welcome everyone to the second of three webinars for Science Education for Jewish professionals. My name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, I am the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, which is an organization that bridges the worlds of religion and science and looks at interesting and important questions from both a religious and scientific perspective here. And this is housed at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the webinars are being run by the American Association for the advancement of Sciences Program on Dialogue program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion. This is part of a larger initiative that they are doing for Science Education for religious professionals.
And so two weeks ago we asked the question “are we still special if we are not alone,” we had Professor Sara Seager of MIT looking at questions of exoplanets and whether or not discovering all these other planets in Trappist-1 is going to make us unique, or whether that makes us less special here. And this afternoon we are going to be speaking with Professor David De Steno, who is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, somebody I’ve gotten to know over the last couple of years because I’ve read two of his books. One of them is called “Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner, and Saint Lurking In All of Us” and also the book, “The Truth About Trust: How to Determine Success in Life, Love, Learning and More.” We’re going to be looking at the questions of the science of G’milut Chasadim, acts of loving kindness. And so in a moment I’m going to turn it over to Professor DeSteno.
David DeSteno: Today I want to talk a little bit out about compassion, empathy, and resilience, what I call threading the needle, that is, what are these terms, how do they work and how can we cultivate them to actually help make a positive difference in our lives and also in societies of which we are a part.
I think everyone would agree that there are a lot of challenges facing us right now, things from intergroup strife, to natural disasters, to environmental issues. Many of these, to solve them, really require a willingness to sacrifice some of our resources, some of our abilities, to help others, whether it’s time, money, or even a shoulder to cry on to lend support. But if we all do this together, it will lead to better outcomes than if we proceed in a way that kind of continues to evoke hostility and aggression.
And I know I’m excited to do this presentation with you today because I’m going to give you the scientific perspective on it, but a lot of what we do is also drawn from different religious theologies, where the ideas of the importance of compassion and being kind to your fellows is wisdom that has been passed on time and again. I know lots of traditions foster this view. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Dalai Lama, although this is by no means just a Buddhist view at all, is that “love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries, and without them humanity cannot survive.”
And so what we do in my lab is trying to research the underpinnings of compassion and empathy, to understand how the human mind does decide who is worthy to help, whose pain we should feel, and also what we can do, both as individuals and as a society, to kind of foster those feelings, to cultivate those feelings. And so I want to start briefly by just talking a little bit about the differences between empathy and compassion. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but scientifically at least they mean very different things, and I think if we take a moment to talk about what they are, it can help us understand the way they work in the best way to foster kind of pro-social or altruistic behaviors.
So my friend Paul Bloom has got a great book out called “Against Empathy” where he talks about the differences between these two, but the idea certainly isn’t limited to him, it’s – you see it in lots of neuroscience, you see it in Buddhist theology and lots of places. The idea is that empty seat is an ability by which we put ourselves in other people’s shoes, where we perspective-take and feel what they feel. And so if you’re happy, I will feel your happiness; if you’re sad, it will feel your sadness; if you’re in pain, I will feel your pain.
And of course when someone’s in pain that can motivate us to help, but there’s also the problem that when we feel others’ pain too intensely or too frequently, it can result in what’s called empathy fatigue or empathy collapse. And this is a real phenomenon, you see it a lot of people who are engaged in caregiving or in health care or even in situations where there are so many problems that – you can think of so many different charities or good organizations that need our help and we kind of begin to feel overwhelmed and turn a blind eye to it in some ways, be self-protective, because if we feel everybody’s pain it’s going to be a problem.
Compassion, however, is really an emotion or emotional state, it’s focused on helping somebody without necessarily feeling their pain, right. I can realize you’re in distress and I want to help you, but do it without getting bogged down in feeling all of the negativity and pain you’re feeling. And that suggests that if we take that route, we’re not going to be subject to empathy fatigue or feeling overwhelmed.
And so when we decide to a look at this honesty of this idea holds up in research, one way we did it was to try and find a group of people who had the ability to do both: had the ability to understand other people’s pain and suffering, as well as just to feel compassion, to see how they might behave when they saw others in need. And to do that, we focused on folks who had past life adversity, so we studied – we’ve run a couple studies now, some using online examples we could have hundreds and hundreds of people, some in our lab where we can control things tightly.
We measure the types of adversity people have experienced in their lives, due to illness, due to abuse, due to living in very difficult economic conditions, whatever it may be. And then we measured their ability to perspective-take, that is, how often and how easily they can put themselves in other people’s shoes to try to feel what they’re feeling, but we also measure just their general motivation to be altruistic, to want to care about other people, and then we looked at how much compassion they felt. That what you’re saying – I’m sorry is graph isn’t very pretty, it’s straight off the computer because we’re just doing this analysis now but I want to share it with you – the way to think about this is on the bottom you see two conditions, and the first condition is when we present people with a single individual who is suffering that they can help, versus a condition 2, which is when we present them with multiple people who they can help. And then the blue line is kind of people who have not faced much adversity in their life, and the green line is people who have faced a lot of adversity.
And what you’ll notice here is kind of the typical empathy or compassion fatigue effect. Sometimes it’s called the numeracy bias, that is, we have this kind of her perverse mental calculation that. In Syria the more people who are suffering, the more we should want to help them, but under most situations we don’t see that’s the case. As you can see are people who feel adversity they don’t feel any more compassion for many people who are suffering than for just one individual. However, if we look at people who have faced adversity in their lives, they don’t show that numeracy bias, they don’t show empathy fatigue, their amount of compassion they feel tracks the number of individuals who are suffering.
So the question is, why are these people who have had adversity in their lives, what makes them more resistant to empathy fatigue or to give these perverse biases and wanting to help other people? And so if we look at a model of how we put this together – again, those of you who happen to be quantitatively inclined, those numbers can be interpreted as regression coefficients, but those of you who aren’t and I’m going to assume most people aren’t, I’ll just tell you what this means.
And so the more adversity people felt in life, the more it leads them to want to engage in perspective-taking, and the more it increases their empathic concern, which is simply a motivation to want to help others that’s separate from putting themselves in their shoes, in putting yourselves in their shoes, or feeling their pain, and both of these in turn increase the amount of compassion we tend to feel regularly.
That is a personality trait of compassion. In a situation that we proposed to them or somebody needs help, it triggers how much compassion they feel in that moment, and then also the amount of effort they’ll go to, to work to help this person here. This person was stuck doing some work, the person didn’t feel well – we do this with actors – and what we see is the more compassionate people felt, the more they were willing to spend time helping this person. We’ve done this with money and charitable organizations, the same thing holds true: people will actually give more money.
But the important thing to think about here is that the strength, the higher the number, the stronger the effect. What we see is a much stronger effect through just simply having concern for others than actually engaging in perspective taking. It’s more than double. And so what this suggests to us is that a more robust route to kind of cultivating compassion may not rely on trying to put yourselves in others’ shoes, trying to feel their pain, but rather just developing a clear motivation to want to help people, to want to end pain. And the interesting thing is when we looked at these data, there was also a negative relationship between how recently people had experienced the adversity and how much compassion they were feeling, that is, when you’re very close to the end to the adversity in your life, when you’re still feeling the pain from it, it becomes more difficult to actually feel compassion for other people because you’re feeling that turmoil yourself, as well as getting it through empathizing with them.
And so for us with this in just is we should we’re trying to build compassion we should do it through increasing people’s motivation to care altruistically for others, and not through trying to have put themselves in their shoes and feel their pain.
For two reasons: one, it’s not only that easy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes especially that someone who’s living a very different life than you’ve lived, but two, still it’s also debilitating to you, that pain can also be somewhat overwhelming.
So one thing that we decided to look at initially, as a way to foster compassion, was to look at meditation, and one reason we’ve done this is because a lot of the ideas here between empathy and compassion, and fostering one without the other, comes from Buddhist theology. And we decided to look at one of their primary techniques for growing compassion, which is meditation.
If you read the New York Times or the ads. For the Wall Street Journal or Harvard Business Review you’ll see people talking about the wonders of mindfulness. It will make you more creative, it will increase your productivity, it will increase your standardized test scores, it will lower your blood pressure, but none of those were why it was created. The reason that meditation was created was to simply end suffering. The Buddha and meditation teacher didn’t really care about SAT’s or GRE’s or GMAT’s or your IRA, what they cared about was ending suffering.
And if you looked in the sciences, by historical accident, the people who really studied meditation first tended to be what we call cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists, and so they were very interested in how it affected the brain, which is all fine and great, but people tended to neglect the social side of what meditation does in terms of interpersonal behavior.
And so we decided to put this idea of meditation fostering compassion to the test, and the way we did that was to advertise in the local Boston area, where I am, for people to do a meditation study for eight weeks. We had 39 recruits, none of these people had done meditation before. And we assigned them to one of two conditions: either they would come once a week to the lab and get meditation instructions from a Buddhist Lama and they were given mp3 designed by her for them to practice at home in between those weekly meetings, or they were put on a wait list.
And after eight weeks, we brought them to our office under the guise that we were going to measure the effects of meditation on their memory and other cognitive tasks. But really, the experiment occurred in the waiting room. So picture this, you come into a waiting room, there are three chairs, two of the chairs are occupied, these are people who are actors, who work for us, but of course the subjects didn’t know that. So what do the subjects do? They come in and they take the remaining chair.
A few minutes later, down the hall comes this person on crutches wearing one of those boots on your foot that you wear when you have a broken ankle, kind of wincing in pain as she came down. She enters the room – she’s an actor who works for us – she enters the room, there are no chairs because they’re all occupied. The other two people in the study, by design, ignore her, they thumb their iPhone, they don’t look at her. And she just leans against the wall and kind of sighs a bit in pain.
And what we’re setting up here is what’s called, in psychology, a bystander situation. That is, there’s a person who needs help, there are other people there, but they’re ignoring this person who needs help. And that in many ways constructs a situation that is the most – that reduces the motivation to help the most, because you’re there, nobody else is helping, why should you? And what we’ve sought to look at was whether the people in our study actually would get up and try to help this person, to relieve their suffering by offering their chair to her or doing something similar.
And what we found, to us, was a surprisingly large effect. So, here, what you can see is fully 50% of the people who engaged in eight weeks of meditation practice got up out of the chair, went over this person, offered her their chair and anything else they could do to help relieve her pain. Whereas it was only about, you know, 15% of the people in the control condition.
Now this is a huge effect. I mean, we increased on balance about three times the likelihood people would just do a simple act to help relieve the suffering of a stranger. And so we thought this was great, but we were also a bit worried because, you know, this is a relatively small sample, it’s hard to get people to spend months doing meditation, so we decided to run it again, but we wanted to do it in a way that also made it more scalable. Not everybody has the time or access, either in terms of location or finances, to practice and learn meditation from a Buddhist Lama.
So we did it again, but this time we used a mindfulness app that was created by someone with many years of monastic training, so here people either practiced meditation for many weeks at home using a mindfulness app, or we had them do an active control condition, where instead they did one of these brain training programs. Everyone was just as dedicated, every day they had to go online and either do meditation training or do these Lumosity-type exercises that were supposed to kind of increase their brain power.
And we found again something very similar, the effect’s slightly smaller, as you might expect for kind of online versus face-to-face training, but still, a huge difference in the percentage of people who just got up out of their chair to relieve the suffering of another person, even when other individuals were ignoring the person in pain.
And so to us this suggests that meditation itself might be a really important way to begin to cultivate compassion. The problem, of course, is how and why does it work? And if you ask some of the Buddhists, what they’ll say is it happens because we begin to see everybody as equally worthwhile, that is, we begin to see people as equally linked, equally human, and we don’t separate them into artificial groups, whether they’re based on political ideology, race, religion, etc.
It seems to be a powerful thing. If many of you know the story of the Christmas Eve truce, it was 1914 outside Ypres, Belgium, the British and the Germans were fighting a very bloody battle, but on Christmas Eve, the British looked across the no-person’s land between them and the Germans, and they started to see lights, and they started to hear singing, and they realized that they were hearing Christmas carols. And what happened next was rather astounding – the people came out of their trenches and they began to celebrate together, right, these are people who were trying to kill each other moments before, but here they were now, suddenly celebrating.
Why do we think that happened? I think it happens because in those moments, they stopped categorizing each other by nationality or ethnicity and categorized themselves as fellow Christians, and we’ve seen similar things with other ethnic groups in different places, that re-categorizing ourselves in ways that show our our linkages is powerful.
We wanted to show this in the lab. The question is, the world is full of lots of people, more than we could help; how does the mind identify who is worthy of help? We think it does it based on a simple metric, and that is similarity. That is, who is most like us? Because if we have to help someone, if you help everybody in the world, gave your resources to anybody who needed it, it would be debilitating in an evolutionary sense. And so the mind makes a bet: who is most worthy to help are those who are like you, because they’re the ones who when you need it are going to help you back. And so it’s not the severity of the disaster, it’s whether or not we see ourselves in the victims.
So we want to manipulate similarity in a very bare-bones way. And so we decided to use a very simple cue, which is called motor synchrony, simply moving together in time. You see this in the military, you see it in Conga lines, you see it lots of places. The idea is when we see two things that move together in time, we tend to group them as one.
And so the last experiment, that I’ll tell you about quickly, is we brought people into our lab. They thought they were in a music perception study. They sat down across the table from each other, they put on earphones, and their goal was to simply tap their hands on the sensors in the table in time to the music they were hearing. In some conditions, that made them tap in unison, because the tones were synched. In others they completely tapped out of sync because the tones they were hearing were different.
Then one person sees the other person get cheated – this, of course, was a set up where by getting cheated, he got stuck doing a lot of onerous work that he shouldn’t have had to do. And they were then offered the opportunity to go and help this person. I am going to skip the nature of the transgression, because you’re running short on time, basically they were cheated because a coin was supposed to be flipped to see whether this person got to do a good task or a long and onerous problem, somebody cheated, the person got stuck doing the long and onerous problem, even though he shouldn’t have had to have done it. And they got the option to decide whether or not they wanted to help this person, to take on some of his burden.
And what we found is that we asked people “how similar do you think you were to that person who you were sitting across the table from, who now you saw got cheated, got stuck doing this work?” And they’d never met this person before – we know because the person was an actor who worked for us – but simply the act of tapping their hands in time made them feel more similar to them because to the mind, that’s a marker that we’re joined, and so they created stories for why they thought they were similar to him – but those weren’t true.
We asked them, how much compassion did you feel for this person? You felt more compassion for the person if you felt, if you tapped in time with them, even though the person was cheated in the exact same ways. So the objectives of the suffering, the cheating and the having to do this task unfairly, were exactly the same, but you felt more compassion for this person if you tapped in time with them. When offered the opportunity to help them, 17, almost half of the people, 17 out of 35, agreed to help the person if they were, if they had tapped their hands in sync, vs. 6 out of 34 if not, and the time they spent helping the person was dramatically different.
Now the reason why here is if you tapped your hands in time with this person, it made you feel more similar to the person, it also made you like that person more. But how much compassion you felt for that person being cheated, being stuck doing this onerous task, didn’t really depend on how much you like them, it depended on how similar you were to them, and the more similar you were, the more compassion you felt and the more time and effort you devoted toward helping this person, even though the victimization and the “suffering” were the same in all cases. But the suggested social identity is flexible, and with it goes compassion.
And so one way to actually increase compassion isn’t always to remind ourselves, kind of from the top down, that we should be good, it’s to kind of work from the bottom up, by simply changing how we think about others in relation to ourselves, which will automatically nudge compassion forward. So I like to – my example is, where I live in Boston, what this means is don’t think of the guy who lives next to you, your new neighbor, as the guy who hates the dreaded Yankees or the dreaded Red Sox (because I’m from New York originally), but think of yourselves as people who both like the same neighborhood Starbucks, right.
There’s nothing magic about tapping your hands. Any cue to similarity will do; anything that we can find that shares or links our humanity to someone else will do the same trick. And so one goal that we’re trying to figure out is how can we encourage people to find shared links of their humanity or things they like in common, outside of the things that often separate us, like religion or ideology, to find those shared links. And if we do that, the brain will automatically change its calculations of how much I’m going to care about you, and whether I think you are worthy of helping in my efforts to be compassionate.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: I want to thank you for your time, I want to thank all of you who joined us here for the webinar. My name again is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, and I want to thank the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, and CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who are the hosts of our webinars, and the incubators for Sinai and Synapses. You can see more at sinaiandsynapses.org and the rest of this web of our series as well, so thank you for taking the time to learn with all of us.