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The Science of Compassion: A Conversation With Professor David DeSteno

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Compassion is a deep-seated value in every religious tradition. Judaism teaches that the world stands on Torah, on prayer and on acts of loving kindness. Christians celebrate the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke. And a major reason the Dalai Lama is so honored is because of his Buddhist teachings on compassion.

But compassion can also be studied scientifically, and one of the foremost researchers on compassion is Professor David DeSteno, author of the book "Out Of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us" and the director of the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University.

On April 15 at 4 p.m., Professor DeSteno will be speaking about the science of compassion at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about how the the science of compassion can inform our religious and ethical outlooks:

Geoffrey Mitelman: Does religion foster or hinder our ability to be compassionate?

David DeSteno: It's a trickier question than one might think. There's been a debate going on in psychological science for the past decade about the nature of morality. Do our moral sentiments spring from innate intuitions (e.g., ubiquitous evolved responses) or from conscious dictates (e.g., religious doctrines, ethical principles). There's data to support both sides, and therein lies the reason for the ongoing debate. It's not simply one or the other. It is true that the challenges of human social life, among which is the question of when to feel compassion and act altruistically, have existed for much longer than we've had the cognitive wherewithal to engage in rational analysis. So, it makes good sense that we have moral intuitions that automatically guide our actions. We never would have made it out of the "ancestral savannah" if we didn't.

Of course, the more recent ability of the human mind to engage in abstract reasoning opened up additional ways for us to embrace (or avoid) ethical actions. The result is that we're of two minds -- an intuitive one and a deliberative one. The trick is to realize that they're both attempting to solve the same problem: how to navigate the social world optimally. Neither "mind" is more moral than the other, and that's the most important fact to understand in learning how to live more ethically. You can't always trust your intuitions or your rational mind. Both are capable of leading you astray.

When it comes to compassion, I think we can all agree that most religions embrace the view that compassion is a virtue and that we should help those in need. So, at a conscious level, I think religion works to increase the likelihood that we will help others. However, religion also functions as a social category; it can divide us into "us" and "them," into believers and nonbelievers.

What we know from our own research is that, on the intuitive level at least, how much compassion we feel for others is a direct function of how similar we feel to them. For example, our work has shown that simply having people wear similar color wristbands to denote their membership in a recently created "team" alters the levels of compassion they feel for each other. When one individual is harmed, the level of compassion another feels for him is modulated up or down depending on whether the victim is wearing the same color wristband.

Consequently, we have to be aware that while our religious beliefs may be urging us to act compassionately, our religious identities may be introducing an asymmetry into our responses. We may feel the pain of our brethren more and the pain of others less.

An interesting fact here can be seen in some traditions of Buddhist meditation. A basic technique of compassion meditation is to realize that all beings are equally similar. That technique is quite congruent with our findings. The more the mind automatically comes to see all beings as alike, the more ready it is to feel compassion equally for all in pain.

What situations most bring out our compassion? What situations bring it out the least?

As I've hinted at above, the level of compassion we feel for others is greatly influenced by whether we see ourselves in them. If you think about it, it makes great sense biologically. Feeling compassion usually motivates us to act to help others, often at a cost to ourselves. If a person were moved to feel compassion for everyone in every instance, it could become paralyzing. That person would experience constant sorrow and utilize all of her or his resources to help others. Now, this might be a noble goal, but in terms of evolutionary logic, it's anathema.

Consequently, the intuitive mind makes us feel more compassion for those with whom we share some affiliation. Of course, that affiliation can take many different forms -- familial, team membership, or group-based identities along various social dimensions (e.g., vegetarians).

In short, it's not just the nature of the tragedy that makes us feel compassion; it's also whether the victim is likely to help us in the future. No one would be surprised that an American soldier would feel more compassion for a wounded comrade than for a Taliban fighter who sustained the same injury. But this phenomenon of relativism is so deeply ingrained in the mind that we find the same asymmetry simply due to mirroring another's movements. If you tap your hands in time with a person right before they are victimized, you'll feel their pain more and work longer and harder to help them than if you didn't tap your hands in time with them. Synchronous movement, after all, is an ancient marker for joint purpose.

What's the relationship between compassion and ethical action?

Compassion, like all emotions, is a feeling state that serves as an engine for action. Once we feel an emotion, it increases the likelihood that we'll engage in certain behaviors (or at least makes us work harder to avoid them). Fear prepares us to flee. Anger prepares us for conflict. Compassion prepares us to support others. If you accept the view that emotions function to increase adaptive responding, then it makes great sense that humans have a suite of emotional responses that impel them to build social capital. We're a social species at heart. We depend on others to flourish. Consequently, we have to possess emotional responses that enhance prosocial actions and not just ones that are aimed at selfish pleasure or competition and aggression.

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In Judaism, compassion is not primarily a feeling -- it is an action.

"Just as God is compassionate, we should be compassionate. Just as God clothed the naked (by making clothes for Adam), we should clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick (by going to see Abraham after he was circumcised), we should visit the sick. Just as God comforted mourners (by speaking to Isaac after his father died), we should comfort mourners. Just as God buried the dead (by burying Moses), we should bury the dead." (Sotah 14a)

As DeSteno noted, there often is tension between our religious beliefs and our religious identities -- between our religious teachings that tell us to be compassionate to all people, and the way religious groups can create an "us" and "them" mentality.

But "who we are" is very much "what we do." If we act compassionately, we begin to view ourselves as "compassionate people." Our sense of identity arises not only from the group we associate with, but from the actions we take.

So when we think about using religion to foster compassion, then, the focus should not be on how we strengthen our sense of identity -- that simply reinforces divisiveness. Instead, as DeSteno's research on science of compassion shows, we should aim to strengthen our values, to think about how we behave and to consciously expand how we can "see ourselves" in others.