Compassion can be quite selfish

People who feel compassion want to help others. Right? Social psychologist Wim Meerholz found out that there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, compassion is a very selfish emotion.
By Christien Boomsma

He was quite surprised by the results of his research. Social psychologist Wim Meerholz had asked his test subject to remember an event in their past when they had hurt someone. ‘They were so open about it. A lot of people admitted to having cheated, neglecting their mother, or causing an accident. There was even one person who said he’d drugged someone. I hope that one was actually a joke.’

Meerholz had good reason to ask people about these painful incidents. He wanted to know how much compassion his test subjects felt towards the people they had hurt. But even more so: does feeling compassion cause people to be more inclined to help others? The answer? No.

It turns out this lovely, positive emotion has a dark side that we previously didn’t know about. Next week, Meerholz is receiving his PhD for his discovery that some people use compassion to not have to think about their own mistakes.

Tough spot

‘We already knew that compassion arises when we see other people suffer’, Meerholz explains. ‘It makes you focus on other people and want to help them.’ For just a little bit, people stop worrying about the fact that helping others might put them in a tough spot. Or that it could even be dangerous.

But Meerholz suspected that it might be more complex than that. Anyone feeling compassion is also judging what happened to the other person. So what happens when they themselves are to blame? They should be judging themselves. ‘And that doesn’t jibe with people’s needs to see themselves in a positive light. We suspected that in these cases, compassion could actually have the opposite effect. That it would lead to people being less inclined to help others.’

Meerholz spent the last four years getting to the bottom of his hypothesis. He suspected that the crux lay in whether or not people identify with the group who caused the misery in the first place. Think of the group of students with whom you used to bully another student in school. Are you still friends with them? Or have you not seen them for at least ten years?

On an individual level, do you feel a close connection to the person you used to be, or do you think you’ve changed a lot? ‘In the latter case, people tend to consider their earlier selves as a good friend, and they are more open to criticise themselves.’

Dark side

Meerholz made his test subjects read a newspaper article about the massacre in Rawagede in Indonesia, where Dutch soldiers killed 431 men. ‘Next, the subjects had to think about the suffering of these people’, he explains. ‘This would stimulate compassion in them.’

It turned out that people who strongly identified with the Netherlands and being Dutch did feel compassion, but not the regret or anger that usually accompanies the emotion.

He concluded the same for individuals. People who felt that they had changed considerably since cheating or causing an accident felt much more regret and self-criticism than the ones who didn’t feel that way.

Meerholz concluded that there is another side to compassion. A dark side. ‘People who feel compassion are completely focused on the other person’, he explains. ‘And that can be very useful. Because if you’re focused on the other person, you don’t have to pay any attention to the guilt and shame you feel about what you’ve done. It’s basically a way for people to fool themselves.’



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