In our daily lives, the misfortunes of others may trigger feelings of compassion, but we may not always act on them. We pass a beggar on the street without stopping to give him money. We avoid stopping to help a stranded motorist. Perhaps we’re in a hurry, perhaps we’re too focused on our own troubles, or perhaps we simply don’t want to engage with these individuals.
Whatever the excuse, we walk on, assuming that suppressing our compassion won’t cost us anything. But one recent study shows quite the opposite. Researchers found that after people suppress compassionate feelings, they lose a bit of their personal commitment to morality (Cameron & Payne, 2012).
Study participants viewed a slideshow that included homeless people, crying babies, and victims of war and famine. Some participants were instructed to try not to feel sympathy; some were instructed to try not to feel distress (an unpleasant but non-moral feeling), and the rest were instructed to experience whatever emotions naturally arose. They were then evaluated as to whether they believed that moral rules “must be followed all the time” and how important “being a moral person” was to them.
Now, past studies have shown that people tend to suppress their compassion when faced with mass suffering in cataclysmic events such as natural disasters, war, terrorist attacks or genocide. That’s understandable, a survival mechanism, perhaps. We may fear emotional flooding, becoming so overwhelmed that we can’t function.
But what’s the personal cost of choosing to ignore small, everyday opportunities to exercise compassion?
Why does suppressing compassion make us feel less moral?
Compassion is such a powerful emotion that it’s been called the ‘moral barometer.’ Some researchers speculate that having a sense of other people’s suffering may even be the very foundation of morality, which may help explain why suppressing compassion could make us feel less moral.
In the Cameron & Payne study, people who had suppressed compassion experienced a change in their sense of their own morality. They were much more likely to either care less about being moral, or to say that it’s okay to be flexible about following moral rules. The reason, researchers believed, was that suppressing feelings of compassion causes cognitive dissonance that people must resolve by rearranging their attitudes or beliefs about morality.
The term cognitive dissonance describes the uncomfortable tension that can result from having two conflicting thoughts (or cognitions) at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs, or from experiencing apparently conflicting phenomena. In other words, cognitive dissonance occurs when we perceive incompatibility between two cognitions — any element of knowledge, including attitude, thought, emotion, belief, or behavior.
In its simplest form, cognitive dissonance may involve filtering information that conflicts with what we already believe, allowing us to ignore that conflicting information in order to reinforce our existing beliefs. At a more complex level, contradicting cognitions act as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs or modify existing beliefs in order to resolve the dissonance (conflict) between cognitions.
When beliefs and behavior are in conflict, beliefs often change to match behavior. This is not always a bad thing, of course.
But this study suggests that suppressing small, daily acts of compassionate behavior can tilt our moral compass off-course, cause us to care a little less about being moral, and drive us to be perhaps a bit too “flexible” when it comes to following our own moral rules. Once our moral compass is no longer pointing to true north, there is, perhaps, a danger that our foundation of morality could be gradually chipped away, putting us at greater risk, long-term, for immoral behavior.
Sahaja meditation is big on empathy and compassion. In fact, it’s almost an innate benefit and manifestation once you start meditating. You can read more in depth about how Sahaja meditation cultivates empathy and compassion.
Cameron, C. D., Payne, B. K. The Cost of Callousness: Regulating Compassion Influences the Moral Self-Concept. Psychological Science, 2012; 23 (3): 225.