CAPACITY FOR CARING: Countering the collapse of compassion

Whilst compassion is a very motivating driving force, it can also be a contradictory emotion.For those of us in animal welfare, we are intrigued by and do our best to analyze the capacity to have and exhibit concern for others, a trait called compassion, both in and out of our own species.

Going beyond whether we feel compassion or not, or how much compassion we feel in a certain situation, there are those of us who want to know if compassion can be fostered, changed, even manipulated or suppressed. What’s more is it good for people to feel compassion and how can they best act on it?

This is part two in a series of three blogs examining this topic. You can read the first blog here.

Compassion demonstrates a genuine desire to help out as well as encompassing an empathic response.

According to Dr. Daryl Cameron, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Iowa, “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.” He describes compassion as “the lifeblood of human morality.”

Whilst compassion is a very motivating driving force, it can also be a contradictory emotion.

On the one hand it operates very effectively when the object of compassion is a manageably sized group of needy individuals. However, as the size of that group of perceived victims increases, compassion appears to diminish, the so-called “collapse of compassion effect.”

Cameron’s research shows this is not simply a case of diminishing emotional return but in fact “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.”

When this phenomenon was first identified, it was initially thought that humans simply cannot feel compassion for a large number of victims, that emotions are not triggered by aggregates.

However, this proposition was tested by Cameron alongside Keith Payne who had developed a different theoretical account.

Their research indicated that people deliberately, if unconsciously, engage in emotion regulation to protect themselves from being emotionally overwhelmed by the needs of large groups of victims or when they anticipate being asked to help, for instance by a donation of money.

Emotion regulation is therefore the ability to modify emotional reactions and respond with applicable behavior, and it can be strengthened through practice.

This research therefore indicates that the “collapse of compassion effect,” can partly be a result of self-protection. Interestingly however, only certain people in these studies exhibited the collapse of compassion and the researchers suggested these are people are who are skilled at emotion regulation. In a particular experiment, some participants were told to ‘down-regulate’ their emotions, and these did indeed show the collapse of compassion.

Meanwhile, the other group, who were told to experience their emotions, did not demonstrate the collapse of compassion. From this research it appears that people can regulate their emotions proactively and it is possible to prevent ourselves from experiencing high levels of emotions towards group suffering.

So does this avoidance of compassion actually change the way we think about morality?

Again, perhaps somewhat contradictorily, people who are better at regulating their emotions tend to exhibit more compassionate behavior. In other words, if you are good at regulating your emotions you can direct your emotions wherever you want.

The findings from this research therefore suggest that there is a clear need to frame animal welfare issues in such a way that people will not feel overwhelmed by the psychological cost of becoming involved: We need to reframe our agendas in such a way that we can overcome potential compassion collapse and harness instead the type of regulated compassion which leads to positive action and long-term change for animals.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that there are indeed ways of developing and harnessing compassion. If compassion can be blunted, as research tells us it can be, can it also be strengthened?

Several studies, for example, point to the practice of mindfulness meditation. One such study, at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that mindfulness meditation and compassion training can improve emotion regulation and suggested that compassion meditation can increases responsiveness to suffering.

Research at Stanford University showed that a seven-minute intervention designed to cultivate compassion was sufficient to increase feelings of connection to others.  Such findings suggest that a sense of connection can be changed at a deep-seated level.

Similarly, researchers found that participants displayed enhanced emotional processing in brain regions linked to empathy, elicited by cries, during meditation.

In another study, researchers at the University of Virginia found that seeing someone help others creates a state of elevation that then inspires us in turn to help others.

If compassion is the answer to so many of the societal problems of today, including the treatment of animals, then how can it be cultivated? Can we train people in compassion?

This question has indeed been posed by researchers from the University of Stanford who, alongside the Dalai Lama’s personal translator, have developed the Compassion Cultivation Training Program under the auspices of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) based at Stanford. Underlining CCARE is the belief in the importance of compassion, not only for our own individual development, but also for the social development of humanity and our impact on the world.

If we now know, therefore, that empirically validated techniques for cultivating compassion are freely available, what should our call for action be? Supported by this growing body of evidence, I am suggesting today that we can avoid compassion collapse and cultivate instead the type of regulated compassion which leads to positive action and long-term change for animals.


[Next: How compassion is good for our health]

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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project