Adversity Increases One’s Level of Compassion for Others

Image: Public Commons

Experiences with trauma can result in depression and ill health in many people, research has shown. But an underappreciated result can also be a renewed appreciation for life and increased resilience — a phenomenon psychologists term “post traumatic growth”. According to a study in the journal Emotion, the researchers have shown that increased compassion for others can also be an outcome. The authors argue that the more adversity in life a person has experienced, the more compassion they tend to feel and show toward others.

The researchers Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University surveyed 224 people 60% of whom were female, aged 22 to 74. The participants answered questions about the adversity they’d experienced in life, including injuries, bereavements, disasters, and relationship breakdowns. They also completed measures of their empathy and compassion, and the survey ended with a chance to donate some of their participation fee to charity.

The researchers found the more adversity participants had experienced, the more empathy they said they had, and in turn, this greater empathy was associated with more self-reported compassion, and more actual generosity, as revealed by the amounts the participants chose to donate to charity.

The researchers conducted a second experiment:they first tricked 51 students into thinking they were taking part in an emotion recognition study. While in the lab, they saw another student participant — actually an actor — taking part in a really boring task, even though he’d told the researcher he was feeling ill and had a doctor’s appointment to get to. The participants had the chance to help complete the boring task the ill student was working on — whether they chose to help, and how much they helped, was used as a measure of their compassion. The next day, the participants answered questions about the adversity they’d experienced in life, as well as their empathy and compassion. The researchers found that the students who’d lived through more adversity reported having greater empathy, and in turn this was related to higher self-ratings of compassion. Also, they showed more compassionate behaviour towards the ill student.

The researchers do make one reservation: cause and effect. They’ve only shown that experiencing past adversity correlates with, rather than causes, greater compassion. And they acknowledge that of course everyone responds differently to adversity, and that people’s psychological responses evolve over different time frames.

Having said that, however, the researchers argue their results do support the proposition that “adversity, on average, likely fosters compassion and subsequent prosociality.” They also see sound theoretical reasons why this might be the case. They argue that compassion can be seen as a “forward-looking coping response” that helps to strengthen social ties, and this in turn benefits the compassionate person and those whom they help.

The findings of this study also also resonate with other related research: for example, a 2011 study by Johanna R. Vollhardt and Ervin Staub published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, found that people who have suffered more themselves show greater altruism and sympathy for disaster victims.

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others