Tag Archives: compassion

Empathy Paradox:  Similar Adversity Reduces Compassion

Many intuitively believe that people are more empathic toward those who experience difficulties they also encountered.

Ervin Staub

Ervin Staub

This linkage between challenging life experiences and subsequent empathy was posited by University of Massachusetts’s Ervin Staub and Joanna Vollhardt of Clark University, and confirmed in experiments by Northeastern’s Daniel Lim and David DiSteno.

Daniel Lim

Daniel Lim

However, this connection is more complicated, found Northwestern’s Rachel Ruttan and Loran Nordgren with Mary-Hunter McDonnell of Wharton.

Rachel Ruttan

Rachel Ruttan

The team exposed volunteers to people who expressed dejection in enduring a hardship such as bullying or unemployment.

Participants who recalled similar past hardships remembered them as less distressing than they were originally experienced, and were more likely to harshly judge others in similar circumstances for their difficulties in enduring the situation.

Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia

In fact, volunteers who previously coped with severe bullying felt less — not more — compassion for current bullying victims.

Likewise, those who had faced greater difficulty with unemployment had less empathy for people who were currently jobless.

This confirms the “tough love” approach implied in the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s directive to Americans dismayed with the 2000 election outcome: “Get over it!”

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

However, when the the volunteers’ adversity experiences differed from the current suffers’ difficulties, participants were more compassionate.

The “empathy gap” emerged only when survivors of similar hardships showed less understanding for current suffers.

  • -*How do you reduce the “empathy gap” in workplace situations?

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Compassion Training Surpasses Empathy Training to Reduce Stress

Susanne Leiberg

Susanne Leiberg

Compassion training has positive effects on mood and health, and University of Zurich’s Susanne Leiberg, Olga Klimecki, Tania Singer demonstrated that it can actually change the brain’s functioning, and related emotions and behaviors.

Olga Klimecki

Olga Klimecki

Klimecki, Leiberg, Singer, now at Max Planck Institute collaborated with Claus Lamm of University of Vienna to examine the impact of compassion training on brain activity in response to observing another person’s distress.

Tania Singer

Tania Singer

A frequent experience in daily life, most people experience distress, or empathy, when observing another’s distress, due to activation of the brain’s “mirror” neurons.

Claus Lamm

Claus Lamm

In contrast, compassion is concern with others’ suffering coupled with the desire to alleviate the other person’s pain, and can exist without actually experiencing the other persons’ distress through empathy.

The researchers evaluated whether personal distress be transformed into compassion, a useful coping strategy for those in health care professions, and in caretaking roles.
They developed the Socio-affective Video Task to measure neural and subjective responses to witnessing the distress of others.

Most volunteers experienced initial empathic negative feelings and activations in the brain’s pain empathy areas, the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex, when they observed the distress of others.
However, the volunteers who completed compassion training experienced less negative emotion, and more positive feelings when witnessing others in distress, related to increased activity in brain areas associated with positive emotion and affiliation:  the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental area.

In contrast, control group volunteers who received memory training did not have more positive emotions, and participants in empathy training actually experienced more negative feelings.

The studies suggest that compassion training can be an effective coping strategy when observing or supporting others in distress, and the mental discipline of compassion training can increase positive emotion more effectively than memory training or empathy training.

Besides changing the brain and related feelings, compassion training triggered more “prosocial” behavior, including helping and cooperating.

This researcher team developed the Zurich Prosocial Game (ZPG) to validly assess helping behaviors in light of reciprocity, helping cost, and distress cues influences.
Volunteers who had received short-term compassion training increased their helping behaviors in the game, but this was not true for volunteers who received short-term memory training.

Charles Raison

Charles Raison

Emory University’s Charles Raison advocated compassion training as a better day to deal with “enemies,” whether globally or interpersonally.
He collaborated with Emory colleagues including Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, who developed Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) and Sheetal Reddy of Atlanta’s Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, to evaluate the impact of compassion training with youth in foster care.

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi

The team considered whether these participants, who had suffered maltreatment, experienced improved psychosocial functioning after twice-weekly Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) for six weeks compared with young people assigned to the “wait-list-no treatment” group.

Researchers found no difference in measured functioning, but young people who practiced compassion more frequently reported greater hopefulness and ability to deal with life stressors, and decreased generalized anxiety.

These findings suggest that compassion training can improve stress management, mood, and cooperation.

-*How have you seen compassion training affect feelings and behaviors?

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Resilient Performance Enhanced by Warmth, Touch

John Bargh

John Bargh

Idit Shalev

Idit Shalev

John Bargh of Yale and Idit Shalev now of Ben Gurion University found a bi-directional causal relationship between physical warmth and social warmth.

They used social affiliation as a proxy for social warmth; Loneliness and interpersonal rejection were examples of social coldness.

Results from their four studies concluded that feelings of social warmth or coldness can be induced by experiences of physical warmth or coldness, and vice versa.

In addition, Bargh and Shalev demonstrated that volunteers unconsciously self-regulated feelings of social warmth by applying physical warmth.

This type of self-regulation is a form of exerting control over the environment and managing feelings.
Self-management strategies reinforce people’s perception that they have some control over choices and environment.

Paul Zak

Paul Zak

Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg

Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg

Paul Zak and Kerstin Uvnas Moberg argue that touch can be another self-regulation strategy because it activates the vagus nerve and the release of oxytocin, resulting in increased feelings of interpersonal warmth, compassion, and collaboration.

Both of these self-management strategies – inducing warmth and engaging in touch – can increase task performance and reduce the likelihood that people will experience depression.

Carl Honore

Carl Honore

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman

Canadian Journalist Carl Honore provided evidence in Martin Seligman’s important finding in studies of “learned helplessness,” that when people have a sense of control – whether real or a “positive illusion” – it can have a salutary effect on performance and mood.

-*How do you self-regulate performance and mood?

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