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Compassion as Evolution

Compassion as Evolution

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Published by Katerina Dimitriou
An evolutionary approach of compassion. How compassion shapes moral judgment and action. Compassion evolved as a distinct affective experience whose primary function is to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer
An evolutionary approach of compassion. How compassion shapes moral judgment and action. Compassion evolved as a distinct affective experience whose primary function is to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer

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Published by: Katerina Dimitriou on Feb 26, 2013
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Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review
Jennifer L. Goetz, Dacher Keltner, and Emiliana Simon-Thomas
University of California, Berkeley
What is compassion? And how did it evolve? In this review, we integrate 3 evolutionary arguments thatconverge on the hypothesis that compassion evolved as a distinct affective experience whose primaryfunction is to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer. Our empiricalreview reveals compassion to have distinct appraisal processes attuned to undeserved suffering; distinctsignaling behavior related to caregiving patterns of touch, posture, and vocalization; and a phenomeno-logical experience and physiological response that orients the individual to social approach. Thisresponse profile of compassion differs from those of distress, sadness, and love, suggesting thatcompassion is indeed a distinct emotion. We conclude by considering how compassion shapes moral judgment and action, how it varies across different cultures, and how it may engage specific patterns of neural activation, as well as emerging directions of research.
compassion, empathy, sympathy, prosocial behavior, altruism
Compassion is controversial. Within studies of morality, theo-retical claims about compassion reach contrasting conclusions:Some theorists consider compassion to be an unreliable guide to judgments about right and wrong, whereas others view compassionas a source of principled moral judgment (Haidt, 2003; Nussbaum,1996, 2001). Within debates about the nature of altruism, research-ers have sought to document that a brief state such as compassionis a proximal determinant of prosocial behavior (Batson & Shaw,1991; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987; Hoffman, 1981). Within evolu-tionist thought, controversies have swirled around whether com-passion and sympathy are the products of evolutionary processes,as Darwin assumed, or tendencies too costly for the self to bealigned with the tenets of evolutionary theory (Cronin, 1991).These debates highlight the question that motivates the presentreview: What is compassion? Ironically, despite pervasive theo-retical claims and numerous studies of a statelike episode of compassion, it is largely absent from traditional emotion taxono-mies and research (e.g., Boucher & Brandt, 1981; Ekman, 1999;Izard, 1977; Roseman, Spindel, & Jose, 1990; C. A. Smith &Ellsworth, 1985; Tomkins, 1984; for an exception, see Lazarus,1991). Instead, compassion has been described as a vicariousexperience of another’s distress (e.g., Ekman, 2003; Hoffman,1981), a blend of sadness and love (e.g., Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson,& O’Connor, 1987), or a subtype or variant of love (e.g., Post,2002; Sprecher & Fehr, 2005; Underwood, 2002). Although recentauthors have treated compassion as an emotion (e.g., Batson, 1991;Haidt, 2003; Sober & Wilson, 1998), there has yet to be anintegrative review of the evidence relevant to the question “Whatis compassion?”Our central goal in this paper, therefore, is to present a func-tional analysis of compassion and to review the evidence related towhat is known about the appraised antecedents, experience, dis-play behavior, and physiology associated with compassion. Beforedelving into our own theoretical account, we clarify our definitionof compassion and distinguish it from related states.
Definitions of Compassion and Levels of Analysis of Affective Experience
We define compassion as the feeling that arises in witnessinganother’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help(for similar definitions, see Lazarus, 1991; Nussbaum, 1996, 2001;see Table 1). This definition conceptualizes compassion as anaffective state defined by a specific subjective feeling, and itdiffers from treatments of compassion as an attitude (Blum, 1980;Sprecher & Fehr, 2005) or as a general benevolent response toothers, regardless of suffering or blame (Post, 2002; Wispe´, 1986).This definition also clearly differentiates compassion from
, which refers to the vicarious experience of another’s emotions(Lazarus, 1991).Other researchers have referred to this kind of other-orientedstate with different terms (for a review, see Wispe´, 1986). Forexample, Batson defined empathy as a family of responses toanother “that are more other-focused than self-focused, includingfeelings of sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like” (Bat-son, 1991, p. 86). Similarly, Davis’s empathic concern scale “as-sesses ‘other-oriented’ feelings of sympathy and concern for un-fortunate others” (Davis, 1983, p. 114). Eisenberg et al. (1994, p.776) defined
“as an emotional reaction that is based onthe apprehension of another’s emotional state or condition and thatinvolves feelings of concern and sorrow for the other person” (seealso Darwin, 1871/2004; Eisenberg et al., 2007; Feather, 2006;
Jennifer L. Goetz, Dacher Keltner, and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, De-partment of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley.This paper was prepared with support from the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant T32-MH067562), the Metanexus Institute, the Rus-sell Sage Foundation, and the Fetzer Foundation. We are grateful to HillaryElfenbein, E. J. Horberg, Elizabeth Page-Gould, Lindsay Shaw Taylor, andQing Zhou for their insightful comments on previous drafts of this paper.Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to JenniferL. Goetz, who is now at the Department of Psychology, McCardell Bicen-tennial Hall, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT 05753. E-mail: jgoetz@middlebury.edu
Psychological Bulletin © 2010 American Psychological Association2010, Vol. 136, No. 3, 351374 0033-2909/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0018807
Post, 2002; Wispe´, 1986). The term
is sometimes used todescribe a state close to what we conceptualize as compassion(Aristotle, as discussed in Nussbaum, 1996; Weiner, Graham, &Chandler, 1982; Weiner, Perry, & Magnusson, 1988). Pity, how-ever, involves the additional appraisal of feeling concern for some-one considered inferior to the self (Ben Ze’ev, 2000; Fiske, Cuddy,Glick, & Xu, 2002).We prefer the term
because it encompasses aslightly broader set of states than sympathy (Nussbaum, 1996). Wewould place the states labeled with terms such as
sympathy, pity,
empathic concern
in a family of compassion-related states thatcenters upon a concern for ameliorating the suffering of anotherindividual (for a discussion of the concept of emotion families, seeEkman, 1992). As part of an emotion family, these states likelyshare central features with compassion: similar antecedents, keyappraisal components, core action tendencies, and similar physio-logical responses and signal behaviors. They likely differ fromcompassion in terms of peripheral appraisals (e.g., appraised dom-inance in the case of pity) and certain display behaviors (Keltner &Lerner, 2010).Empirical studies support this emotion-family approach to com-passion and closely related states. Lexical studies of emotion termsin English (Campos et al., 2009; Shaver et al., 1987), Indonesian(Shaver, Murdaya, & Fraley, 2001), Chinese, and Italian (Shaver,Wu, & Schwartz, 1992) have found that
(or their translations) are often grouped together. In ourown laboratory, participants’ sorting of 150 positive emotion termsgrouped
together, along with words like
, and
(Campos et al., 2009;
was not included in this study). A study of both positive andnegative emotion terms, however, found that
sometimes were placed in a positive emotion category with com-passion but more often were placed in a category of sadness-related terms (Shaver et al., 1987), an issue that we revisit later.Several self-report studies lend further credence to the claim thatcompassion and sympathy are closely related and are plausiblemembers of an emotion family. These studies consistently revealedthat ratings of 
load on a commonfactor (Batson, Fultz, & Schoenrade, 1987), whereas ratings of 
load on a separate factor (Fultz, Schaller, &Table 1
Theoretical Positions on Compassion as Emotion
Theorist QuotationTheoretical positionDistinctemotionVicariousemotionVariant of loveor sadnessBatson (1991) “[Empathy refers] to one particular set of congruent vicarious emotions,those that are more other-focused than self-focused, includingfeelings of sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like.” (p. 86)X XDarwin (1871/2004) “The all-important emotion of sympathy is distinct from that of love. Amother may passionately love her sleeping and passive infant, butshe can hardly at such times be said to feel sympathy for it.”(p. 129)XHoffman (1981) Empathy “may be defined as a vicarious affective response to others:that is, an affective response appropriate to someone else’s situationrather than one’s own.” (p. 128)XLazarus (1991) “Compassion . . . is not a sharing of another person’s emotional state,which will vary depending on what the other person’s emotionalexperience seems to be, but an emotion of its own . . . . In
, the emotion is felt and shaped in the person feeling itnot by whatever the other person is believed to be feeling, but byfeeling personal distress at the suffering of another and wanting toameliorate it. The
core relational theme
for compassion, therefore, is
being moved by another’s suffering and wanting to help
.” (p. 289)XPost (2002) “Compassion . . . is love in response to the other in suffering;sympathy . . . is love in response to the other who suffers unfairly.”(p. 51)XShaver et al. (1987) “Sympathy . . . seem[s] to refer to [a] mixture of sadness andlove . . . . [It is] a feeling of sadness for a person we careabout . . . . [It] share[s] antecedents—and perhaps responses as well—with both love and sadness.” (p. 1082)XSprecher & Fehr (2005)
Compassionate love
is an attitude toward other[s], either close othersor strangers or all of humanity; containing feelings, cognitions, andbehaviors that are focused on caring, concern, tenderness, and anorientation toward supporting, helping, and understanding theother[s], particularly when the other[s] is [are] perceived to besuffering or in need.” (p. 630)XTrivers (1971) “The emotion of sympathy has been selected to motivate altruisticbehavior as a function of the plight of the recipient of such behavior;crudely put, the greater the potential benefit to the recipient, thegreater the sympathy and the more likely the altruistic gesture, evento strange or disliked individuals.” (p. 49)X
Cialdini, 1988). Many studies aggregate self-reports of more thanone term, but others use only single-item measures or terms thatare more appropriate to children’s vocabulary (for a summary, seeTable 2). In light of these findings, in the present review wesynthesize what is known about compassion, pity, and sympathy,with an eye toward possible distinctions within this family. Acritical need is for further research on the distinctions betweencompassion, sympathy, and pity.Empirical studies of compassion can also be organized accord-ing to a levels of analysis framework for studying affective expe-riences (Kahneman, 1999; Rosenberg, 1998). A first level of analysis is represented by
which are brief, context-specific responses focused on a clear cause (Ekman, 1992). Al-though compassion is listed in few emotion taxonomies, numerousstudies have examined the characteristics of brief experiences of compassion, or related states such as sympathy or empathic con-cern; we synthesize the findings of these studies in this review. Ata second level of analysis,
are assumed to belonger lasting than emotions, less focused than emotions are on aparticular cause, and less context-bound than specific emotions(Watson & Tellegen, 1985). In a later section we consider howbrief experiences of compassion might develop into enduringsentiments. Finally, emotional
are general styles of emo-tional responses that persist across context and time (Larsen &Ketelaar, 1991; McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002; Shiota,Keltner, & John, 2006). Studies of people prone to feeling com-passion, or related states like empathic concern, are relevant tounderstanding the nature of compassion, given the supposition thatemotional traits share core appraisals and action tendencies withthe associated emotional state. Numerous studies of compassion,which we consider here, have examined traitlike tendencies towardbriefer experiences of the state. Later we consider how brief experiences of compassion might interact with the traitlike ten-dency to experience compassion.
Theoretical Accounts of Compassion
Three alternative theoretical approaches to compassion can bediscerned in the literature (see Table 1), and they yield contrastingpredictions that we assess in our empirical review. A first accountholds that compassion is another name for empathic distress (e.g.,Ekman, 2003; Hoffman, 1981). People often mirror the emotionsof those around them and vicariously experience others’ emotions(Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993). From the empathic distressperspective, compassion is simply a label that people apply to theirvicarious experience of distress in response to another person’ssuffering. The clear implication is that the state of compassionshould be associated with the expressive behavior, physiologicalresponse, and underlying appraisals of the state it is mirroring,most likely distress, pain, sadness, or fear.A second account holds that compassion is not its own emotionbut rather a variant or blend of sadness or love (e.g., Post, 2002;Shaver et al., 1987; Sprecher & Fehr, 2005; Underwood, 2002). InEnglish, lay conceptions of compassion often intermingle withconceptions of sadness and love (Shaver et al., 1987). In Shaver etal.’s influential prototype analysis of emotion terms, U.S. partici-pants categorized 135 emotion words into groups based on theirsimilarity to one another. Participants categorized the word
com- passion
most often with
, and
. In addition,the words
were sometimes categorized with
but were more often grouped with
Inanother study, participants listed
compassionate love
uncondi-tional love
giving love
, and
altruistic love
when asked to generateexamples of the category
(Fehr & Russell, 1991). These termswere not rated as central to the prototype of love, but behaviorssuch as caring, helping, and sharing were associated with mosttypes of love (see Sprecher & Fehr, 2005). These lexical data raisethe possibility that compassion is simply a variant of sadness orlove and that it shares the core appraisals, properties of experience,and physiological response and display behavior of these emo-tions.Table 2
 Antecedents, Appraisals, and Subjective Experience of the Compassionate Response
Antecedent Appraisal Subjective experienceBabies and children in need
Self and goal relevance
Adults (multiple-item measures):
Distress vocalizations
Goal incongruence
Target not responsible
Self able to cope/help
MovedIllness, physical or mental disability
SoftheartedVictims of catastrophe or loss
TouchedAdults (single-item measures):Sympathy
Sorry for otherConcern for other
Batson et al. (1989).
Batson et al. (1987).
Batson et al. (1983).
Batson et al. (1997).
Cialdini et al. (1997).
Eisenberg, Fabes, et al.(1988).
Eisenberg et al. (1989).
Eisenberg et al. (1994).
Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, Carlo, & Miller (1991).
Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, Miller,et al. (1991).
Eisenberg, McCreath, & Ahn (1988).
Eisenberg & Miller (1987).
Eisenberg, Schaller, et al. (1988).
Ellsworth & Smith(1988b).
Fabes et al. (1994).
Mikulincer et al. (2001, 2005).
Oveis et al. (in press).
Reyna & Weiner (2001).
Rudolph et al.(2004).
Weiner et al. (1982).
Weiner et al. (1988).
Zahn-Waxler et al. (1983).

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