Guest Post: Compassion — it does a society good

Photo by poptech via Flickr.

Photo by poptech via Flickr.

I’m excited to intro­duce today’s guest blogger: Lori Lennon, sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tions diva. That’s not her offi­cial title, just what I like to call her. Really, she’s the com­mu­ni­ca­tions coor­di­nator for the Col­lege of Sci­ence and she had the good for­tune of attending IDEAS Boston at UMass Boston yes­terday to hear psy­chology David DeSteno talk about com­pas­sion. Below she reflects on what she learned. Enjoy!


Yes­terday I went to check out pro­fessor David DeSteno, our res­i­dent expert on social emo­tions, speak at IDEAS Boston 2012. DeSteno is a com­pelling speaker, and his research on com­pas­sion is so incred­ibly interesting—I mean, how fas­ci­nating is it to study the sci­ence behind human emo­tion? He’s a lucky guy.

Lis­tening to DeSteno’s talk, I could not help but think about my days in the news­room. I kept thinking about the stressful sit­u­a­tions, the insanely tight dead­lines, the ter­rible hours, the argu­ments about sto­ry­lines and missed opportunities—the news­room is filled with emo­tion, and there are times when argu­ments can’t be avoided, but despite all that, I can hon­estly say that some of my nearest and dearest friends are my former co-​​workers.

But why? You would think that with the day-​​to-​​day stresses, we wouldn’t want to spend any more time with each other than nec­es­sary, but it was the com­plete oppo­site. I spent much of my spare time with my news­room friends.

It all came together for me during DeSteno’s talk….It’s com­pas­sion. Com­pas­sion may well have been the bond that kept us all together, and sane, for that matter.

Here’s how DeSteno breaks it down: Humans are capable of great acts of love, but whether we know it or not (or just won’t admit it), we are also capable of greed and self­ish­ness, even if it’s as simple as ignoring the elderly person who could use some help crossing the road, or by not holding the door that extra 5 second for the person behind you.

There is a bal­ance, as DeSteno puts it, between self­less­ness and selfishness—both feel­ings exist in the con­scious and uncon­scious mind, but which one emerges at any one moment, depends on our surroundings.

So how do you feel com­pas­sion toward one person, but per­haps not another? At IDEAS Boston and at a recent Pop! Tech talk (which was selected as the Talk of the Day) DeSteno used exam­ples such as the Christmas Truce and the embrace between Pres. George Bush and Sen. Tom Daschle after the 9/​11 attacks to show how sim­i­lar­i­ties can make us form instant bonds—or feel­ings of compassion—toward each other.

You’re prob­ably asking how this can be proved. To do just that, DeSteno set up an exper­i­ment where sub­jects tapped either in unison with par­tic­i­pants or off tempo. These sub­jects were then asked if they would help par­tic­i­pants finish some sort of daunting task. The results were telling—the sub­jects who tapped in unison with the par­tic­i­pants were more likely to help finish this ter­rible task assigned than those who tapped asyn­chro­nously with each other. Inter­esting, right? A simple task, such as tap­ping in unison, is enough to make some people feel com­pas­sionate toward others.

So this brings me back to my fab­u­lous friends from the news­room. Sure we all fought with each other here and there, and yes, things did get hairy at times, but through thick and thin, we were on the same team. We were all working the same god-​​awful hours, we were all stressing about the same sto­ries, the dead­lines and sources, and we were all scarfing down the same stale brownies left on the assign­ment desk that were prob­ably from some kid’s birthday party over the weekend. All those stresses that we shared brought us together—made us a tighter unit, made us feel com­pas­sion toward one another.

I think it makes per­fect sense, and it gives me hope that we can use this idea of com­pas­sion to create a better under­standing of and tol­er­ance for one another.