Suppressing feelings of compassion makes people feel less moral: study

(Medical Xpress) -- It’s normal to not always act on your sense of compassion—for example, by walking past a beggar on the street without giving them any money. Maybe you want to save your money or avoid engaging with a homeless person. But even if suppressing compassion avoids these costs, it may carry a personal cost of its own, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. After people suppress compassionate feelings, an experiment shows, they lose a bit of their commitment to morality.

Normally, people assume that ignoring their compassionate feeling doesn’t have any cost—that you can just suppress your sympathy and walk on. But Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the authors of the paper, suspected that wasn’t true. “ is such a powerful emotion. It’s been called a barometer,” Cameron says. 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 slideshow 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, non-moral feeling), and the rest were told to experience whatever emotions come to them. The instructions were detailed, telling the people 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 slideshow, 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 did, apparently, have a change in their sense of morality: they 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 thinks 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 says—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 care about or think about morality, it may put them more at risk for acting immorally.”

More information: www.psychologicalscience.org/i… sychological_science

Related Stories

What will people do for money?

Apr 08, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- At the April 4, 2011 annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society the subject of moral dilemmas and what people would really do was addressed. In a study presented by Oriel FeldmanHall of Cambridge University shows that when it comes to ...

People mimic each other, but we aren't chameleons

Jan 11, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- It’s easy to pick up on the movements that other people make—scratching your head, crossing your legs. But a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

The brain acts fast to reappraise angry faces

Nov 15, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- If you tell yourself that someone who’s being mean is just having a bad day—it’s not about you—you may actually be able to stave off bad feelings, according to a new study which will ...

Recommended for you

What sign language teaches us about the brain

13 hours ago

The world's leading humanoid robot, ASIMO, has recently learnt sign language. The news of this breakthrough came just as I completed Level 1 of British Sign Language (I dare say it took me longer to master signing ...

Why do men prefer nice women?

14 hours ago

People's emotional reactions and desires in initial romantic encounters determine the fate of a potential relationship. Responsiveness may be one of those initial "sparks" necessary to fuel sexual desire and land a second ...

Study reveals how to be socially successful

14 hours ago

Romantic, personal and professional relationships are fraught with danger, but a University of Queensland researcher has found the secret to interacting successfully with others in such settings.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

pauljpease
not rated yet Mar 15, 2012
In past work, weve 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.

For any of you who've been following the show "The Walking Dead", this seems to be true for the character Shane.