Leiden Psychology Blog

Compassion and when to feel it

Compassion and when to feel it By Nieuw Leiden

People can feel compassion when they see somebody in physical or psychological pain. Not every observed suffering, however, leads to feelings of compassion. What exactly is compassion, and can we predict under which circumstances we experience it?

Compassion, pity, feeling sorry for somebody; we all experience these emotions once in a while. We see people hurting themselves, we see people hurting other people and we see people struggling with painful experiences. What is compassion according to social psychology and when are people likely to feel it (or not)?

4 characteristics of compassion

Compassion is the feeling that arises when a person observes another person’s suffering, which motivates a  subsequent desire to help. In more concrete terms; we see somebody suffering and we want to help. However, not every observed suffering automatically leads to feelings of compassion. The situation in which the suffering takes place needs to have 4 specific characteristics before compassion can come to full bloom. Let me guide you through the circumstances that do nor do not give rise to compassion.

Who is suffering?

Imagine we observe suffering: Somebody falls. The first question we can ask ourselves is “Am I the one who is suffering, or is it someone else”? When I fall, I probably feel anger, some sadness, and I feel pain. Compassion is about another person’s suffering.

Is there a benefit?

The second question that we can ask ourselves is “Do I benefit from this suffering?”. When a player of the opposing soccer team threatens to score but instead he falls, you probably do not feel compassion. Instead you may feel happiness, joy or schadenfreude. Compassion is about another person’s suffering that does not benefit you.

Who is to blame?

The third question that we can ask ourselves is “Is the suffering person to blame?”. People with a flat learning curve who stumble over a doorstep for the fifth time will not raise compassion, they rather raise annoyance or irritation. Compassion is only felt for those who cannot be blamed for their suffering.

Can I help?

The final question that we can ask ourselves is “Can I help?”. More specifically, “do I have the resources to help, and do the benefits outweigh the costs of helping”?  When your leg is broken, you are less able to help a fallen person to get up. When a person has fallen into a stormy ocean and you cannot swim, you cannot help. When a person has fallen into a stormy ocean and you would need to risk your own life to save that person, the costs may be too high to help. When you are not able to help, you will probably not feel compassion, but you probably feel distressed or weak.

This last question is also the trickiest one, because there can be many reasons why someone is not able to help, or why the costs of giving support are too high. When you are busy doing your job, you may feel you cannot help. When you are on your way to do something really nice, you may not want to help.

Scope for compassion

So, to feel compassion, you need to observe somebody else’s suffering, you should not benefit from this suffering, the suffering person cannot be blamed for the suffering and you need to feel able to help. Under those circumstances your compassion can grow and flourish. Enjoy.

This blog is related to the play 'Goed Bedoeld' by the theatre group Nieuw Leiden. The play 'Goed Bedoeld' is about compassion and its consequences.

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