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How Science Makes Having Compassion Easier

While compassion is often the subject of religious and philosophical dictum, we can readily make ourselves more compassionate by thinking differently, say experimental psychologists. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Experimental psychologists are learning that our sense of compassion, which helps us empathize with others, extends beyond the person we feel for and that we can actually train ourselves to be kinder, less prejudiced people. In one experiment, where people were given to punishing a person who cheated on the experiment’s tasks for personal gain, less punishment was doled out when a female subject of the experiment (secretly in cahoots with the scientists conducting the study) began to cry and tell of how her brother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In other words, the sympathy felt for the woman carried over to others and resulted in less punishment being given to the cheater. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Another experiment showed how strong and yet how easily forged are the bonds of compassion. Two subjects who simply tapped their hands on a buzzer at the same time, rather than at asynchronous intervals, felt more compassion for one another, demonstrated by their willingness to later help one another with some onerous word problems. The scientists behind the experiment conclude that we do not need religious or philosophical dictum to convince us to act compassionately toward each other: “Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.”

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