When people suppress their sense of compassion, there’s often a price to pay: Losing a bit of their commitment to morality.
Normally, people assume that ignoring their compassionate feelings — such as refusing to give money to a homeless person — has no effect, but researchers Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suspected that wasn’t true.
“Compassion is such a powerful emotion. It’s been called a moral barometer,” said Cameron, a social psychology graduate student. He noted that a sense of other people’s suffering may even be the foundation of morality, which suggests that suppressing that sense might make people feel less moral.
The researchers showed each participant in their experiment a slide show of 15 images of subjects, including homeless people, crying babies and victims of war and famine. Each participant was given one of three tasks. Some were told to try not to feel sympathy, some were told to try not to feel distress — an unpleasant, but non-moral feeling — and the rest were told to experience whatever emotions come to them.
The instructions were detailed, telling those who were supposed to suppress an emotion exactly what that emotion was and that they should do their best to eliminate it.
After each participant watched the slide show, they were tested on whether they believed that moral rules have to be followed all the time and how much they cared about being a moral person.
People who had suppressed compassion were much more likely to either care less about being moral or to say that it’s all right to be flexible about following moral rules. Cameron said this is because suppressing feelings of compassion causes cognitive dissonance that people have to resolve by rearranging their attitudes or beliefs about morality.
Choosing not to be kind is a common experience. “Many of us do this in daily life,” Cameron said, whether it’s declining to give money to a homeless person, changing the channel away from a news story about starving people in a far-off land, or otherwise failing to help someone in need.
“In past work, we’ve shown that people suppress their compassion when faced with mass suffering in natural disasters and genocide. To the degree that suppressing compassion changes how people care about or think about morality, it may put them more at risk for acting immorally.”