Compassion leads to more help, less punishment

New York, Dec 20 (IANS) Compassion shapes our behaviour towards a person wronged and a wrongdoer and may lead us to help the wronged than to punish the wrongdoer, researchers have found.

According to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, a new set of studies suggests that compassion — and intentionally cultivating it through training — impacts the extent to which people punish the transgressor.

“Any action — helping or punishing — can arise from compassion, which involves at least two components: a ‘feeling’ component of empathic concern and caring for the suffering of another; and a cognitive, motivational component of wanting to alleviate that suffering,” said lead researcher Helen Weng.

Published in the journal PLoS ONE, the findings said understanding what motivates people to be altruistic can not only inform our own behaviours, it may also play a role in creating more just societal institutions, including the legal and penal systems.

These findings build upon previous work by Weng and others, which demonstrates that as little as two weeks of compassion training can result in measurable changes in the brain.

These previous studies measured altruistic behaviour in research subjects but did not separate helping and punishing behaviour to learn which is most related to compassion.

To answer this question, the investigators tested whether compassion was related to helping or punishment in two studies where participants played the “Helping Game” or “Punishment Game”, using real money they could keep at the end of the game.

In both games, participants watched through online interactions as one player with more funds chose to split an unfair amount of money with another player with no funds.

In the Helping Game, the third-party observers could choose to do nothing or give some of their own funds to “help” the victim.

In the Punishment Game, the third-party observers could choose to do nothing or “punish” the transgressor by spending their own funds to take money away from the wrongdoer.

“People with higher empathic concern were more likely to help the victim than punish the transgressor.

“But, interestingly, within the group of people who decided to punish the transgressor, those with more empathic concern decided to punish less,” Weng noted after the studies.

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