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Understanding the Motivation Behind Compassion

This article was based on the TED Talk, “Why Aren’t We More Compassionate?” by Daniel Goleman:


The Good Samaritan

There was a very important study done at the Princeton Theological Seminary that speaks to why it is that sometimes we help others and sometimes we don’t.  A group of divinity students at the school were given a sermon topic and were told that they had to give a practice sermon. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan where a man stopped to help a stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The researchers wanted to see who would stop to help.

They were also curious if contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan would impact whether or not someone would stop.  The answer was no. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in.  What this study uncovered was that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.


How We Interact with Each Other

There’s a new field of brain science called social neuroscience, which studies the circuitry of the brain as people interact with each other. The new thinking about compassion from social neuroscience is that our default wiring is to help. That is to say, if we attend to the other person, we automatically empathize with them. There are newly identified neurons, mirror neurons, that activate in our brain exactly in the same areas as the other person. If a person is in need or suffering, we’re automatically prepared to help.

The question that remains is, why don’t we? Daniel Goleman believes that the answer runs a spectrum from complete self-absorption, to noticing, to empathy, and then to compassion. The simple fact is, if we are focused on ourselves or are otherwise preoccupied, we don’t fully notice others. This difference between the self and the other focus can be very subtle.


Daniel Goleman


The distinction between focusing on ourselves and focusing on others is one that we should all to pay attention to. It’s our empathy and our tuning in which separates us from Machiavellians or sociopaths. When we focus on ourselves in any activity, we turn a part of ourselves off if there’s another person.


Compassionate Consumerism

Think about going shopping and about the possibilities of compassionate consumerism. Right now, as Bill McDonough has pointed out, the objects that we buy and use have hidden consequences. We’re all unwitting victims of a collective blind spot. We don’t notice the toxic molecules emitted by a carpet.  We don’t know if a fabric can be reused or if it just ends up at a landfill. In other words, we’re oblivious to the ecological, public health, social, and economic consequences of the things we buy and use. In a sense, we’ve become victims of a system that points us elsewhere.

There’s a new electronic tagging technology that allows any store to know the entire history of any item on the shelves in that store. You can track an item all the way back to the factory. From there, you can look at the manufacturing processes that were used to make it, and if it’s virtuous, you can label it that way. In other words, at the point of purchase, we might be able to make a compassionate choice.


Will It Make a Difference?

There’s a saying in the world of information science, “Ultimately everybody will know everything.” The question is, will it make a difference?

Goleman ends his talk by sharing a story.  He was in the subway at rush hour, and thousands of people were streaming down the stairs. Suddenly he noticed that there was a man slumped to the side, shirtless, not moving, and people were just stepping over him. Goleman found himself stopping to find out what was wrong. The moment he stopped, half a dozen other people immediately stopped as well.  They found out that the man was Hispanic, he didn’t speak any English, he had no money, he’d been wandering the streets for days, and he’d fainted from hunger. Immediately someone went to get orange juice, someone brought a hotdog, and someone brought a subway cop. The guy was back on his feet immediately. All it took was that simple act of noticing, and so, Goleman tells us, “I’m optimistic.”


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