CAPACITY FOR CARING: Understanding compassion

When empathy is regulated, molded, focused by rational consideration and, importantly, harnessed to compassion, it can spur action to work for a fairer and kinder world.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 one in a series of three blogs examining this topic.--The Eds.


Our exploration begins with the distinctions between empathy and compassion.

Compassion is defined as the emotion that arises when someone is confronted with another’s suffering and feels motivated to relieve that suffering.

Empathy is a complex emotion is defined as “the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings.” To empathise is to take on another’s emotion. But researchers have divided opinions on whether its shortcomings outweigh its merits in terms of societal benefits.

Daniel Batson, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, states in his outline of the “empathy-altruism hypothesis” that “when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them.

In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.”

Conversely, Professor Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, argues that empathy on its own is not necessarily a logical emotion and, describing someone with a heightened level of empathy, points out that her “concern for other people doesn’t derive from particular appreciation or respect for them; her concern is indiscriminate and applies to strangers as well as friends.”

He also argues that empathy does “not endorse a guiding principle based on compassion and kindness.” He believes that public policies informed by “reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences” will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy to one side.

On an individual level he argues that being under the influence of emotion is not a sound basis for a moral life: "Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice.”

He also points out that high levels of empathy can quickly lead to the debilitating condition known as burn-out which is not uncommon in people working in caring professions. So whilst empathy can make people more attuned to the needs of others, if this emotion is unregulated in can have unhelpful and counter-productive effects.

Tania Singer, from the Max Plank Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, conducted several experiments which considered the difference between empathy and compassion.

These experiments looked at the differences between the effect of empathy training, in which subjects focus on the ability to experience the suffering of others, and compassion training, where subjects are taught to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care.

Singer found that after empathy training “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations… these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.”

However, Singer also found that compassion training, which does not aim to increase empathetic response, had positive results, leading to increased altruism as well as increased positive emotions.

Such studies have therefore shown that a high level of empathy can have counter-intuitive effects and does not necessarily promote pro-social behaviour. It can be argued, therefore, that high empathy does not lead to the regulation of compassion and kindness, nor a sense of fair play or justice.

Equally, a low level of empathy does not necessarily mean a lack of regard for others or other qualities that would be associated with anti-social behaviour.

What these studies have shown, however, is that when empathy is regulated, molded, focused by rational consideration and, importantly, harnessed to compassion, it can spur action to work for a fairer and kinder world.


[Next: Countering the Collapse of Compassion]

Post a comment


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