Saturday, 11 January 2014

When Compassion Promotes Altruism

In my previous post I described how people can experience compassionate emotions when they focus on others’ unwelcome misfortune. Compassionate emotions express people’s yearning for things to be better for those they are compassionate toward. In this post I will explore the relationship between compassion and attempted helping.

Compassionate emotions towards misfortunate others can evoke willingness or desire to help them. This is Daniel Batson’s so-called “empathy-altruism hypothesis”. For clarity and convenience, I am going to call this the compassion-altruism hypothesis. It can be noted however that Batson’s version of this hypothesis is relatively narrow, restricted to altruism stemming from visceral compassionate emotions evoked by others’ distress. Other potential motivators of altruism will be considered in later posts.

The compassion-altruism hypothesis suggests that people who would like improvements in others’ welfare sometimes try to improve others’ welfare. This seems relatively non-contentious, merely being one manifestation of a broader claim that people sometimes try to obtain things they want.

Compassionate people wanting others’ welfare to improve does not mean that they will always be willing or want to try to help.

If the compassionate believe that attempts to help might be futile or even counter-productive, they may decide that it would be better to do nothing.

If others’ welfare looks set to improve without their intervention, the compassionate might choose not to get involved. They may see no benefit in personally helping if what they want will come to pass anyway. They may also actively prefer not to get involved if, for example, they want others – perhaps those in need - to get credit for any improvements that occur.

The compassionate want others’ welfare to improve. Sometimes others’ welfare is best served by resisting temptations to help. Compassionate but effective parents sometimes allow their children to receive painful medical procedures. Compassionate but committed educationalists sometimes allow students to experience mental anguish while trying to work things out for themselves. In such cases, others’ long-term welfare can be best served by resisting compassionate urges to help in the short-term.

Compassionate people want others’ welfare to improve but this is rarely the only thing they want. Others’ misfortune can for example evoke personal distress as well as compassionate emotions. People are often keen to alleviate their own distress. Sometimes personal distress can be reduced by helping others (giving people prudent reasons as well or instead of altruistic reasons for helping) and sometimes personal distress can be reduced by doing something other than helping. When compassionate people prioritise accompanying non-compassionate desires in ways that preclude altruism, altruistic helping will not occur. People upset by social conditions sometimes focus exclusively on attacking those they blame and make no attempt to directly help those in need.

Goals change. This is particularly true when goals stem from transient emotions but even long-term commitments wax and wane, shuffling up and down people’s lists of immediate priorities. Compassion can sometimes be replaced by other dominant concerns before resulting in any altruistic help-giving.

In some situations, compassionate feelings can act as a signal to activate learned routines designed to suppress compassion and altruism. Occasional compassionate pangs often do not prevent soldiers killing, lawyers cross-examining, bankers foreclosing, or capitalists profiteering.

Compassion reflects people’s desires for others’ welfare to improve. People experiencing compassion do not always recognise this fact or keep it focal. It can be easy to confuse a desire for others’ welfare to improve with a desire to do something that might be helpful. If a desire to ‘be helpful’ takes precedence over a desire for others’ welfare to improve, resulting behaviours are likely to be more prudent than they are altruistic. Compassionate but confused people can sometimes seek self-satisfaction from acting in allegedly helpful ways (Ps ↑ Sw) more than they seek satisfaction from others’ welfare improving (↑ Ow). (See earlier post if you don’t understand the stuff in brackets in the previous sentence.) At times, sincere but misguided compassionate people may continue busily ‘helping’ even when their actions do not help.

Key points

Compassion can but does not always motivate altruistic behaviour.

Compassion is likely to motivate altruistic helping attempts when altruism is a person’s dominant goal and helping seems likely to be necessary to and effective for improving the welfare of those for whom people are compassionate.

Compassionate attempted helping does not always result in others’ welfare improving.

Behaviour that is helpful need not be motivated by compassion.

Further reading

Sibicky, M. E., Schroeder, D. A., & Dovidio, J. F. (1995). Empathy and helping: Considering the consequences of intervention. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 16, 435-453. Link to abstract
Jonas, M. E. (2010). When teachers must let education hurt: Rousseau and Nietzsche on compassion and the educational value of suffering. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 44 (1), 45-60. Link to abstract

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2013, January 11). When compassion promotes altruism. Retrieved from 

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Compassionate Emotions

People often have emotional reactions to others’ misfortune. One possible reaction is to feel compassionate: sympathetic, moved, tender, warm, softhearted, and the like.

Compassion of this sort is a social emotion.  Social emotions are those which have someone else as their object. Social emotions are evoked by and held ‘in relation to’ or ‘towards’ others. Example social emotions are anger (“You make me so cross!”), pride (“I’m so proud of you!”), and some forms of shame (“I’m ashamed of my country”). People feel compassion for others.

Compassionate emotions express people’s desires for things to be better than they appear to be for those they are compassionate towards. As such, they are altruistic social emotions (see previous post).

The “appear to be” clause is important in the previous paragraph. As Epictetus noted, “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” Social emotions are evoked by and held in relation to our ideas or perceptions of others’ situations. As con men, beggars, and manipulative children know, we may feel sorry for others if we think that they are in a bad way.


Others do not need to be in distress for people to feel compassionate towards them. Others’ distress is merely a clue that they may be experiencing misfortune. Baby Rupa is a picture of contentment in the photograph below - but Mylene Klass is overwhelmed with compassion. Ms. Klass is not sharing Rupa’s feelings nor even responding to them. She is responding with dismay to her understanding of Rupa’s fate. Compassionate emotions express our dissatisfaction with others’ perceived situations and our desire for those perceived situations to be better.

As well as not being necessary to evoke compassion, others’ distress is also not in and of itself sufficient to do so. Sometimes others’ distress evokes indifference or even pleasure.

As well as sometimes wanting things to be better for apparently misfortunate others, we can feel upset that they are in the situation they appear to be in. For this reason it is common for compassion to be accompanied by various other emotions, such as sadness, anger, or guilt. Sometimes these other emotions are so strong that they suppress or overwhelm the experience of compassion. (It will be important to remember this when a later post explores the perhaps poorly-named phenomenon of “compassion-fatigue”. It may not be the compassion itself that is so fatiguing.)

Compassion is important because it is a key altruistic emotion. It is one expression of an interest in others’ positive welfare. Later posts will explore causes of and impediments to compassion. My next post will explore one possible consequence of it: altruistic helping behaviour.

Key points

Compassionate emotions are altruistic social emotions. They express people’s desires for things to be better than they appear to be for those they feel compassionate towards.

Others’ apparent distress is a clue that they are misfortunate but is neither necessary nor sufficient to evoke compassionate emotions.

Compassionate emotions are often accompanied by other emotions which can sometimes suppress or overwhelm the compassionate ones.

Final thoughts and further reading

As always, my focus is more on things than on names of things. Nevertheless, to be able to study and discuss things properly, a shared understanding of language is necessary. Anyone doing further reading needs to know that the phenomenon of feeling compassionate towards apparently misfortunate others is regularly called “sympathy”, “empathic concern”, or “empathy”. And, of course, each of these terms has been used on other occasions to label various different phenomena.

Many researchers differentiate compassionate feelings from feelings that are labelled “personal distress”. I am not a fan of the latter label. I think it inappropriately clumps together much that would be better kept separate. In particular, much of what is called “personal distress” in the research literature would be better labelled something like “compassionate distress”, “social distress”, “empathic distress” or “vicarious distress”. It seems obvious to me that much of the distress compassionate people feel is distress ‘for’ others, i.e., because they are suffering misfortune. This seems very different from distress which is purely self-focused. Feeling distressed that a baby is suffering is not the same thing as being irritated because it is crying.

I have taken pains to differentiate others’ apparent distress from others’ apparent misfortune. This is because the latter is the more crucial determinant of compassionate emotions. In many situations, of course, we feel that others are suffering misfortune because they appear to be distressed. And, of course, others often appear to be distressed because they are in fact distressed!

The importance of compassionate emotions should not blind us to the fact that people sometimes have altruistic feelings towards quite fortunate others. An obvious example is the desire that parents or teachers sometimes feel when thinking about their children’s or students’ futures.

Batson, C. D. (2011). Altruism in humans. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Link to abstract
Epictetus (135).The Enchiridion (Translated by E. Carter). Link
Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (3), 351-374. Link
Pearce, D. (2012). If this baby doesn’t get help, she’ll die. The Sun. Feb 15. Link
Vitaglione, G. D., & Barnett, M. A. (2003). Assessing a new dimension of empathy: Empathic anger as a predictor of helping and punishing desires. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 301-325. Link to abstract

How to cite this blog post using APA Style

T. Farsides. (2014, January 1). Compassionate emotions. Retrieved from

Image Credits

Baby Rupa and Mylene Klass link
Crying toddler link
Sports fans link
Twins link
Wall-E link