THE BLOG
03/27/2013 12:52 am ET Updated May 26, 2013

Callousness Comes With a Cost

Written by Daryl Cameron

The Dalai Lama once said that "compassion is a necessity, not a luxury ... without it, humanity cannot survive." Compassion is the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help. Philosophers, humanists, and theologians have long argued that this emotion plays a foundational role in human morality (though some, like Immanuel Kant and Ayn Rand, have disagreed). The emerging science of compassion has revealed through dozens of experimental studies that compassion leads to pro-social behavior, cooperation, and forgiveness.

And yet there are many contexts in which we avoid feeling compassion for self-interested reasons. We might pass a homeless person on the street, ignore his plea for help and keep walking. Or we might throw a UNICEF envelope in the trash because we feel our contributions would just be a drop in the bucket. From the perspective of material self-interest, there appears to be no cost to such actions: Money, time, and other resources have been saved by stifling compassion. But if compassion plays a central role in human morality, then eliminating that emotion might have unintended moral consequences. Perhaps callousness has a cost of its own.

In an experiment with Keith Payne, I examined the moral consequences of curbing compassion for others. We brought people into the laboratory and had them view a series of images that were meant to tug at their heartstrings: pictures of crying babies, homeless people, and victims of war. These images have been shown in other studies to be powerful triggers for compassion. While people viewed these images, we randomly assigned them do one of three things. We told one group to avoid feeling a specific emotion: compassion. Because many people think that the morally-appropriate response to suffering victims is to feel compassion, we predicted that people would feel that suppressing this response would be ethically questionable.

In a second condition, we told people to suppress a different emotion: personal distress. Personal distress is that self-focused emotion that we all sometimes feel in situations where someone else's needy predicament makes us uncomfortable and we would rather just avoid the whole situation. Compassion focuses attention on the needs of others; distress focuses attention on the needs of the self. We included this second condition to show that regulating compassion in particular, and not just any emotion, would lead to changes in how people thought about morality. Finally, people in the third condition were encouraged to let themselves experience their emotions without trying to suppress them.

Next, we measured two aspects of morality. First was moral identity, or how much people care about having moral traits like honesty, generosity, and kindness. We also measured moral flexibility, or the degree to which people think it is acceptable to bend moral rules in the service of self-interest (e.g., the opposite of having rigid moral principles). We predicted that suppressing compassion for suffering victims would create cognitive dissonance, in which immoral behavior conflicts with people's moral sensibilities. Indeed, we found that people who suppressed their compassion -- but not people who suppressed distress or experienced compassion -- were forced into a tradeoff between their moral identity and their moral principles. If they maintained high standards for morality, they began to devalue moral identity (e.g., "I believe that moral rules should always be followed if I am to be moral, but I just don't care that much about being moral"). On the other hand, if they continued to value morality, they began to relax their standards for moral behavior (e.g., "I still care about being moral, but that doesn't require that I always have to follow moral rules").

We sometimes avoid compassion for self-interested reasons. Yet this study suggests that turning off compassion might work against self-interest by undercutting two things that we hold dear: our moral self and our moral standards. Rather than being just a fleeting emotion with no moral significance, compassion is important for our moral sensibilities. These findings matter because moral identity and moral principles predict real-world moral behavior, such as volunteering, racial tolerance, and refraining from cheating. The findings also suggest the intriguing possibility that if you cut off compassion in one context -- such as steeling yourself against a homeless person's plea -- this may lead you to act unethically in the future, because of these dynamics changes in how you think and care about morality.

There are many professional contexts in which these dynamics may play out. For instance, medical practitioners sometimes have to suppress compassion, as in cases where a painful treatment is in a patient's best interest. Medical professionals may have learned to adapt to these demands, as doctors automatically suppress empathy for others' pain. It's in their self interest to do so, because caregivers who feel more compassion for their patients tend to become more emotionally exhausted and burnt out. But even if compassion suppression avoids these costs, it may bring new ones. For instance, a recent study found that patients who received less compassionate care reported more intense physical pain. Such patient outcomes are one reason why many medical schools are now encouraging compassion training for their students. Though speculative, my research suggests that a professional culture that fosters chronically suppressing compassion may erode the moral standards that ensure adequate care.

More broadly, attention should be paid to how compassion can be fostered within the workplace. There are many work environments where "greed is good" and compassion for others is sacrificed to reach the bottom line. But a climate that encourages suppressing compassion may undermine an organization's moral fabric.

My research suggests that thinking of compassion as opposed to self interest is shortsighted. Indeed, there is increasing recognition that compassion can be a central component of effective leadership. In the long run, enlightened self-interest includes not only material gains but also a healthy regard for moral identities and moral standards. Compassion is not a "sideshow" to everyday morality as some have claimed. If we choose to be callous -- whether at home or at work -- we do so at our peril.

Come join international experts on compassion and business presenting at one of the first large-scales conferences on compassion and business at Stanford University on April 30, 2013: The Compassion and Business Conference organized by Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. We hope to see you there!

For more by Project Compassion Stanford, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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