When we witness something cruel or unfair — perhaps we see a customer being rude to a struggling waiter or see a child stealing a toy from another — our emotions tend to direct our behavior both toward the person wronged and the wrongdoer.
But whether we prioritize comforting the victim or would rather dole out punishment to the wrongdoer is a little more complicated, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison).
Their new findings suggest that compassion may prompt people to do more to help the victim rather than punish the wrongdoer. In fact, compassion may also impact the extent to which people punish the transgressor.
Understanding what motivates people to be altruistic can not only shed light on our own behaviors, it may also play a role in creating fair societal institutions, including the legal and penal systems. It can also help researchers develop better interventions to cultivate compassion.
“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 Dr. Helen Weng, a former graduate student at the UW-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, and current postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco.
“It may seem counterintuitive that punishment behavior can arise from compassion, but if the goal is to alleviate suffering of others, this may include providing negative feedback to the wrongdoer so that they change their behavior in the future.”
Previous findings by this research team has shown that as little as two weeks of compassion training can lead to measurable changes in the brain. These studies gathered fMRI imaging and measured altruistic behavior in research subjects to reach these conclusions, but did not fully separate helping and punishing behavior to learn which is most related to compassion.
Therefore, the researchers 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 participants could choose to do nothing or “punish” the transgressor by spending their own funds to take money away from the wrongdoer.
In one study involving 260 participants who had no training in compassion, the researchers explored whether high self-reported empathic concern — caring for those who are suffering — was associated with helping victims, punishing wrongdoers, or both.
“People with higher empathic concern were more likely to help the victim than punish the transgressor,” Weng said. “But, interestingly, within the group of people who decided to punish the transgressor, those with more empathic concern decided to punish less.”
In another test involving 41 participants, one group received compassion training with meditation practices focused on cultivating compassionate feelings and pro-social behavior toward others. Another group instead received cognitive reappraisal training, focused on reinterpreting one’s view to decrease negative emotions.
Each group practiced its training for 30 minutes a day for two weeks using guided audio instructions over the Internet.
In compassion meditation, participants practiced compassion with different kinds of people — a loved one, themselves, a stranger and a “difficult person” with whom there was conflict. In this way, they strengthened their “compassion muscle.”
After just two weeks of training, participants in the compassion meditation group gave more money to help the victim compared to those who learned reappraisal training, demonstrating that even short amounts of compassion training can result in greater levels of helping behavior. There were no differences in punishment behavior between the groups, suggesting that in this short amount of training time, both trainings did not influence punishment.
The researchers hope these findings can be used to help develop compassion training for specific caregiving populations, such as health care professionals.
“Expressing compassion and behaving altruistically seems to be within the repertoire of every human being,” said Dr. Richard J. Davidson, senior author on the study, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.
“We can use simple practices to help us activate and nurture these propensities and apply them in settings in which they can dramatically impact the climate and interactions that ensue in everyday life, including in education, health care and the workplace.”
The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.
Source: University of Wisconsin- Madison