Suppressing feelings of compassion makes people feel less moral: study

March 15, 2012, Association for Psychological Science

(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.”

Explore further: What will people do for money?

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

Related Stories

What will people do for money?

April 8, 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 ...

People mimic each other, but we aren't chameleons

January 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 ...

Can feeling too good be bad? Positive emotions in bipolar disorder

July 22, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Positive emotions like joy and compassion are good for your mental and physical health, and help foster creativity and friendship. But people with bipolar disorder seem to have too much of a good thing. ...

The brain acts fast to reappraise angry faces

November 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 ...

Lower classes quicker to show compassion in the face of suffering

December 20, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Emotional differences between the rich and poor, as depicted in such Charles Dickens classics as “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” may have a scientific basis. Researchers ...

Recommended for you

Indications of psychosis appear in cortical folding

April 25, 2018
Imaging techniques can be used to detect the development of psychosis in the brains of high-risk patients at an early stage, as reported by researchers from the University of Basel and Western University in the journal JAMA ...

Millennial men value altruism and self-care above traditional male qualities

April 25, 2018
Contrary to popular stereotypes, young men today are likely to be selfless, socially engaged and health-conscious, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia and Intensions Consulting, a Vancouver-based ...

Maternal binge drinking linked to mood problems and alcohol abuse in offspring

April 25, 2018
Binge drinking by pregnant and lactating mothers can impair the mental health of their offspring, reports a study published today in Frontiers in Psychiatry. In a rat model, Italian researchers find that while habitual drinking ...

Engaging in physical activity decreases people's chance of developing depression

April 24, 2018
An international team including researchers from King's College London have found physical activity can protect against the emergence of depression, regardless of age and geographical region.

Imagining a positive outcome biases subsequent memories

April 24, 2018
Imagining that a future event will go well may lead you to remember it more positively after it's over, according to findings from research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Early childhood interventions show mixed results on child development

April 24, 2018
Early childhood interventions may have some efficacy in boosting measures of child health and development in low income countries, but more work is needed to sort out how to implement these interventions, according to a new ...

1 comment

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.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.