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Emotion, Personality and self

People who have experienced more adversity show more compassion

Authors say results support the notion that “adversity, on average, likely fosters compassion and subsequent prosociality.”

20 January 2016

By Christian Jarrett

In parallel with the difficulties caused by trauma, such as depression and ill health, some people experience positive psychological changes, such as a renewed appreciation for life and increased resilience – a phenomenon psychologists term "post traumatic growth". According to a new study in the journal Emotion, we can add another positive outcome related to adversity – compassion. The more adversity in life a person has experienced, the more compassion they tend to feel and show toward others.

Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University first surveyed 224 people via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website: just over 60 per cent were female, and their ages ranged from 22 to 74. The 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 nature of the adversity didn't matter), 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 51 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.

The researchers caution that they've only shown that experiencing past adversity correlates with, rather than causes, greater compassion. And they acknowledge that of course everyone responds differently to adversity, and that people's psychological responses evolve over different time frames. However, they say their results do support the notion that "adversity, on average, likely fosters compassion and subsequent prosociality." They also see sound theoretical reasons why this might be the case – compassion can be seen as a "forward-looking coping response" that helps to strengthen social ties, to the benefit of the compassionate person and those whom they help. The new findings also chime with other related research: for example, a 2011 study found that people who have suffered more themselves show greater altruism and sympathy for disaster victims.

Further reading

Lim, D., & DeSteno, D. (2016). Suffering and Compassion: The Links Among Adverse Life Experiences, Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behavior. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000144