CU-Boulder researchers examine compassionate behavior’s ‘active ingredients’

Published: March 29, 2016

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a quantitative framework for predicting compassionate behavior, a significant step forward in the quest to identify the key psychological processes underlying human compassion.

The new research, which appears today in the journal Emotion, also found that the act of compassionate meditation can significantly increase a person’s positive feelings toward those in need.

Compassion, which is broadly defined as concern for the plight of others, plays a vital role in society, but the psychological components of this complex behavior have largely remained a mystery.

While previous models have identified individual thoughts or feelings related to compassion, none have provided insight into how these feelings and attributes combine to create observable behaviors, such as the decision to donate money to charity.

“Our experiment was designed to integrate information from multiple mental processes to see how well we could predict compassionate behavior,” said Yoni Ashar, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder and the lead author of the new research.

In the first part of the study, participants were shown fictional biographies of individuals in need, then asked to rate each one according to factors such as tenderness (warmth and softness toward the suffering individual); perceived blame (how much blame the suffering individual deserved for his/her plight); and perceived efficacy of helping (how much the person would benefit from a donation). 

Participants were also asked to assess how similar they felt to each individual, then asked to donate an amount between $0 and $1 to the individuals. 

After cross-referencing the participants’ actual donations with their questionnaire ratings, the researchers found their model to be highly predictive of how much money participants decided to donate to a given person.

“By looking across a wide-ranging set of feelings and attributes, rather than just focusing on one, we were able to predict charitable behavior with relatively high accuracy,” said Ashar.

In the second part of the study, 20 new participants were again shown biographies of individuals in need, then engaged in a 20-minute guided meditation session for four weeks.  Participants were instructed to meditate about one specific individual and then asked how much money they would like to donate to that person.

One additional study group was given a “compassion placebo”—a nasal spray they believed would make them more compassionate—to control against common biases, such as the expectation that meditation would make you more compassionate, or feeling compelled to donate due to thinking that’s what the researchers want. Another study group was simply familiarized with biographies of suffering individuals.

The results indicated that those participants who meditated showed increased amounts of positive feelings toward those in need, and they donated significantly greater amounts compared to control groups.

Participants who meditated reported significantly more compassion at the end of the study relative to participants who took the “compassion placebo,” suggesting that the effects of meditation are not just placebo.

Participants who were simply exposed to suffering people (without any meditation practice) decreased in compassion and in charitable donation at the end of the study. Researchers said this may reflect a desensitization to the suffering of others due to repeated exposure.

This finding may have implications for nurses, aid workers, caregivers and other professionals who are exposed to the suffering of others on a consistent basis. 

“The research suggests that meditation may be a useful tool for those professionals over the long-term in order to avoid burnout,” said Ashar.  Future studies will need to directly test whether compassionate meditation can prevent desensitization and empathy burnout.

The study was co-authored by Sona Dimijian and Tor Wager, both professors in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder; Jenifer Sills, a former research assistant in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder; Jessica Andrews-Hanna, a research scientist in the Institute for Cognitive Science at CU-Boulder; Tal Yarkoni, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas Austin; and Joan Halifax of the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Contact:
Yoni Ashar, 240-501-9030
jonathan.ashar@colorado.edu
Trent Knoss, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-735-0528
trent.knoss@colorado.edu

a person meditating

Photo by SpiritFree / Flickr.

“Our experiment was designed to integrate information from multiple mental processes to see how well we could predict compassionate behavior,” said Yoni Ashar, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder and the lead author of the new research.