People who have experienced more adversity show more compassion

Posted on May 17, 2017

Life events can change people, both in positive and negative ways. While people who experienced trauma may develop difficulties such as depression and anxiety, there are others who may experience positive psychological changes, such as a renewed appreciation for life and increased resilience – a phenomenon psychologists term “post traumatic growth”.

Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University had 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 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.

To test this adversity-compassion link further, the researchers conducted an experiment: they first tricked the 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. Again, students who’d lived through more adversity reported having greater empathy, and in turn this was related to higher self-ratings of compassion, and crucially, it was also related to actually showing more compassionate behaviour towards the ill student.

Results from this study have supported the notion that generally, adversity is likely to foster compassion and prosociality. Findings are also in line with other researches that have investigated this area of interest. However, it is noteworthy that while these researchers show that experiencing past adversity correlates with greater compassion, these findings do not indicate a causality link.


Category(s):Positive Psychology

Source material from The British Psychological Society


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