People often avoid feeling compassion for others because it takes too much effort

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Let’s face it, being a good person isn’t easy. It takes for more effort to look out for others and feel compassion for those around us in a tough spot than to simply put blinders on and only care about oneself. Many people do their best to avoid hard work, however, and a new study finds certain people actively avoid feeling compassion for others when given a choice.

Penn State researchers report that across a series of experiments participants often opted to avoid feeling compassion if possible, citing all of the mental effort it would take. For what it’s worth, participants did frequently choose compassion when the hypothetical situation involved a close friend or family member. In such scenarios, subjects also said it’s easier to express compassion.

“Experiencing compassion often leads to wanting to help others and improve their welfare, but we found that people may be unwilling to experience compassion and find it mentally taxing,” explains Julian Scheffer, a Penn State graduate and postdoctoral research fellow at University of California, Berkeley, in a media release. “Knowing when effort matters for compassion can help inform how we think about weaker compassionate responses, whether in response to a stranger or even mass suffering, as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“These choices track with felt cognitive costs,” adds Daryl Cameron, an assistant professor of psychology in Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute, “so cultivating compassion for your family may feel easier than cultivating compassion for a stranger, and this may be one reason why people tend to show such biases in their compassionate responding.”

Pulling together in times of crisis

Study authors hope their findings lead to the development of new ways to promote more compassion, especially during hard times like a global viral pandemic. Scheffer suggests somehow preparing people for the mental effort that comes along with compassion.

“Oftentimes, people are asked to have empathy or compassion for others, with the idea that these feelings will lead to more openness, cooperation, and a willingness to help those who are suffering,” she comments. “We wanted to examine how people choose to engage with these emotional processes, whether they would be approached or avoided, and why this would be the case.”

The team used a series of experiments to reach their conclusions. Some featured as few as 62 participants while others had as many as 215 subjects. Across all experiments participants chose from three virtual card decks. One deck instructed them to feel compassion for someone else, another to feel empathy, and the third asked them to remain objective and simply describe the individual.

For reference, study authors say compassion is caring or sympathetic thoughts toward another person, while empathy is more akin to taking on another person’s suffering and experiences as if they were actually your own.

People would rather show empathy over compassion

The first two studies separated subjects into two groups. One group had to pick a card from either the compassion or objective decks, and the other had to choose between the empathy and objective decks. Participants chose the compassion deck over the objective desk only 25 percent of the time in the first experiment and 21 percent of the time during the second. Meanwhile, people selected the empathy desk about 30 percent of the time during the first experiment and 29 percent in the second experiment.

Then, researchers asked subjects to pick between the compassion and empathy decks. Interestingly, participants were more likely to go for empathy. However, if given the chance to choose between all three decks, participants predictably opted for objective most often.

“Some psychologists and philosophers have said compassion is easier than empathy,” Prof. Cameron says. “One way to test that assumption is to directly compare them and give people a choice. When we asked people if they wanted to feel compassion, at least for strangers, they typically didn’t want to and found it more challenging than empathy.”

Stronger connections lead to more compassion

For the final experiment, the group selected between the same three decks, except for one major change. Instead of depicting a stranger, each card showed either someone the subject knew very well or at least knew on some level.

“We found that people were more willing to experience compassion for their loved ones compared to strangers, and this linked with experiencing reduced difficulty with compassion for loved ones,” Scheffer explains. “Compassion may be more desirable when directed toward more familiar loved ones, and potentially feel less difficult.”

If nothing else, study authors say this work may help explain why people are often so hesitant to feel compassion for others.

“More people are finding it increasingly difficult to engage with each other, and as people are overwhelmed with the amount of suffering right now due to the pandemic, it may make compassion particularly difficult,” Scheffer concludes. “Finding ways to better manage the mental challenges of compassion may provide a more rewarding route to generating prosocial motivation, especially in this particularly troubling time.”

The findings appear in Journal of Experimental Psychology General.