09/12/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Compassion as a Moral Force

We live in a world where tit-for-tat escalations of aggression are all too frequent. Whether we're talking about one coworker sabotaging the work of another as retribution for outmaneuvering him for a promotion, or heads of state upping the ante to punish each other for past wrongs, the potential for violence to spiral out of control often looms large. Yet if we're to be resilient, both as individuals and as societies, we need a way to prevent people from moving into "death spirals" -- a way to rebalance relationships so that we can work toward constructive, as opposed to destructive, ends.

The big question, of course, doesn't center on whether this is a good strategy - most would agree that it is - but rather on how to implement it. When you're filled with anger, especially at someone who isn't acting the least bit sorry, what can prevent you from ratcheting up the aggression? It can sometimes be pretty difficult to engage in reason and "talk yourself down" in such moments. A better way to solve the problem is to do it from the bottom up -- to prevent the impulse for aggression from occurring in the first place.

In trying to figure out how to do that, my colleague Paul Condon and I began to think about a notion that is prevalent in many world religions -- the idea that compassion is a moral force capable of radiating outward to increase harmony. If that view is right, then compassion might just fit the bill. It might, as the Dalai Lama has said, be a necessity, not a luxury, without which humanity cannot survive. It's an intriguing idea, but one without any scientific proof. So, Paul and I decided to put it to the test. We designed an experiment (now published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) based on a simple idea. If compassion automatically spreads, then compassion for one person should reduce aggression toward all.

We brought participants into our lab in groups of three. In actuality, though, only one of the three was a true participant. The other two, Dan and Hannah, were our assistants masquerading as other participants. We told everyone that they had four minutes to solve as many of 20 difficult math problems as possible. To make it interesting, we also told them that they'd receive 50 cents for each problem solved correctly. Twenty was much more that than the typical person could do; the average number solved should be about four.

After the four minutes expired, the experimenter would approach each person to see how many problems he or she solved, pay the person the corresponding amount, and then ask the person to place his or her work in the shredder. Unbeknownst to participants, the situation was rigged so that the experimenter ran out of money just prior to paying the last person: Dan. While the experimenter went for more cash, Dan put his work into the shredder in full view of everyone. When the experimenter returned, Dan told him that he had solved all 20 problems and had already shredded his work to save time. With no seeming recourse, the experimenter paid Dan the full $10, even though it was obvious to everyone that he had cheated. (There was also a control condition where Dan didn't cheat and reported solving one more problem than the true participant.)

After completing the math phase of the experiment, participants were moved into separate rooms for a "taste perception" test. Here, they prepared sample cups of different liquids for each other to taste. True participants were always assigned to fill sample cups with a spicy liquid -- it was a hot sauce labeled with every caution statement you can imagine. They were informed that whatever was in the cup would be placed in Dan's mouth for him to sample. What did they do? Well, those who saw him cheat poured three times more hot sauce into the cup than did those who didn't. They were trying to punish him; when he cheated, they acted intentionally to cause him pain.

But where does compassion fit in? Well, in a third condition, the other "participant" in the room -- Hannah (who remember worked for us) -- began to tear up while everyone was working on the math problems. When the experimenter walked over to her, she would begin to cry softly and tell him that her brother had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. As she began to sniffle even more, she asked to be excused and left. The experiment then proceeded as before, with the remaining participant witnessing Dan cheat and then being given the opportunity to punish him.

What happened next, however, was nothing short of amazing. Those who felt compassion for Hannah completely refused to punish Dan; they poured no more hot sauce in response to his cheating than did those who didn't witness Dan cheat. Aggression completely vanished; the more compassion participants felt for Hannah, the less pain they wished to cause Dan. It wasn't that they forgave Dan, though. They were still angry with him and wanted to tell him what he had done was wrong. Yet, they refused to use violence as a method to solve the problem, even though Dan showed no sign of regret.

These findings suggest that the Dalai Lama is right. The compassion we feel for one inhibits our aggression toward others. It's not that it makes us suckers willing to accept being cheated; it just makes us work to address transgressions through nonviolent means. The upshot is clear: The more frequently any of us feels compassion in our daily lives, the more it prevents escalations of violence as a method to deal with the immoral actions of others. Of most import, it doesn't even matter toward whom we feel that compassion. As we've seen, it will generalize to anyone. What matters is that we try to cultivate it daily, and in so doing, build resilient relationships and societies.

To view a video of a recent talk I gave on this topic, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

For more by David DeSteno, click here.