Yasmin Anwar, in the UC Berkeley News Center, reported yesterday on the findings of a study conducted by psychologists Robb Willer and Laura Saslow into the role of a feeling of compassion in motivating people to act compassionately.
The aim of the study is complex and subtle. The findings cannot be adequately summed up in a headline such as the one attached to Anwar’s article which claims that “Highly religious people are less motivated by compassion than are non-believers”.
In her article Anwar describes the experiments the researchers performed.
In the first experiment, researchers analyzed data from a 2004 national survey of more than 1,300 American adults. Those who agreed with such statements as “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them” were also more inclined to show generosity in random acts of kindness, such as loaning out belongings and offering a seat on a crowded bus or train, researchers found.
When they looked into how much compassion motivated participants to be charitable in such ways as giving money or food to a homeless person, non-believers and those who rated low in religiosity came out ahead: “These findings indicate that although compassion is associated with pro-sociality among both less religious and more religious individuals, this relationship is particularly robust for less religious individuals,” the study found.
In the second experiment, 101 American adults watched one of two brief videos, a neutral video or a heartrending one, which showed portraits of children afflicted by poverty. Next, they were each given 10 “lab dollars” and directed to give any amount of that money to a stranger. The least religious participants appeared to be motivated by the emotionally charged video to give more of their money to a stranger.
“The compassion-inducing video had a big effect on their generosity,” Willer said. “But it did not significantly change the generosity of more religious participants.”
In the final experiment, more than 200 college students were asked to report how compassionate they felt at that moment. They then played “economic trust games” in which they were given money to share – or not – with a stranger. In one round, they were told that another person playing the game had given a portion of their money to them, and that they were free to reward them by giving back some of the money, which had since doubled in amount.
Those who scored low on the religiosity scale, and high on momentary compassion, were more inclined to share their winnings with strangers than other participants in the study.
The conclusion researchers have drawn is that
the link between compassion and generosity was found to be stronger for those who identified as being non-religious or less religious.
It is important to observe what is not being said here. It is not being said that religious people act in less compassionate ways. The only conclusion of the study is that religious people are less motivated by a particular feeling which researchers identify as “compassion”.
But, what happens when there are no “compassion-inducing videos” around to motivate “generosity”? What is the level of compassionate action when the nightly news is not flooded with pictures of earthquake victims, starving children, or war-ravaged villages?
Real compassion does not just show up when it feels compelled by sentiment. Real compassion shows up on a daily basis. It shows up when it does not feel like showing up. It gives generously when it may not be convenient, when it may not feel good, even when it hurts. I wonder if something more than a fleeting feeling may be required to motivate such long-term, reliable commitment.