Can People Learn to Be More Compassionate?

Study Suggests the Brain Can Be Trained in Compassion

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Compassion involves the ability to feel empathy for others. This ability to understand the suffering of other people is an important component that motivates prosocial behaviors, or the desire to help.

Compassion and Empathy Are Not the Same

It is important to note that compassion involves more than just empathy. Compassion helps people feel what others are feeling, but also compels them to help others and relieve their suffering.

Until recently, scientists knew very little about whether compassion could be cultivated or taught.

Utilizing Meditation to Teach Compassion

In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that not only can adults learn to be more compassionate, teaching compassion could also result in more altruistic behaviors and actually lead to changes in the brain. The researchers wanted to know if adults could learn compassion and the subsequent evidence says they can.

How exactly did researchers teach compassion? In the study, young adults were taught to engage in compassionate meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique intended to increase caring feelings for people who are experiencing suffering.

How exactly does this meditation work? While meditating, the participants were asked to imagine a time when someone was suffering. They then rehearsed wishing for the relief of that person's suffering.

The participants were also asked to practice experiencing compassion for different types of people, starting with someone they would easily feel compassion for, such as a family member or close friend. They were then asked to practice feeling compassion for a stranger, as well as for someone they had a conflict with.

Another group of participants called the control group, was trained in a technique known as cognitive reappraisal in which people learn to reframe their thoughts in order to feel less negative,

The researchers wanted to determine if people could learn to change their habits over a relatively short period of time, so both groups of participants received Internet training for a period of 30 minutes every day for two weeks.

Putting the Compassion Training to the Test

What sort of impact did this compassion training have? How did it compare to the results of the control group?

The researchers wanted to know if the compassion training would help the participants become more altruistic. The participants were asked to play a game in which they could spend their own money to help another person in need. The game involved playing with two other anonymous people online, one who was a "Dictator" and one who was a "Victim." As the participant watched the Dictator share an unfair amount of money with the Victim, the participant could then decide how much of their own money to share and then redistribute the money between the Dictator and the Victim.

The results revealed that those trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money to help the player who had been treated unfairly, an example of altruistic behavior. These players were more likely to engage in this altruism than those in the control group who had been trained in cognitive reappraisal.

Compassion Training Changes the Brain

The researchers also wanted to see what kind of impact this compassion training had on the brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both before and after training, researchers were able to see how the compassion meditation influenced brain activity. What they observed was that those participants who were more likely to be altruistic after the compassion training had an increase in brain activity in the inferior parietal cortex, an area of the brain associated with empathy and understanding for other people. Other regions of the brain associated with positive emotions and emotional regulation also showed an increase in activity.

The researchers suggest that like many other abilities, compassion is a skill that can be improved with practice. The researchers believe that the results of the study offer exciting possibilities for helping people build compassion, thus transforming the lives of many. Healthy adults are not the only ones who can benefit from such training. Teaching children and adults compassion might help reduce bullying and help those who struggle with social issues.

The Importance of Teaching Compassion

Why is it important to know that compassion can be learned, even in adults? Because compassion is a central component of so many prosocial behaviors including altruism and heroism. Before we take action to help another person, it is important that we not only understand the individual's situation, but that we also feel the drive to relieve his or her suffering.

According to some researchers, compassion involves three key things. First, people must feel that the problems another person is facing are serious. They must also believe that these troubles are not self-inflicted. When people believe that a person's predicament is his own fault, they are less likely to empathize and less likely to help. Finally, people must be able to picture themselves in a similar situation facing the same problems.

It may seem like a tall order, but the research suggests that compassion is something that we can learn. Not only can we learn how to become more compassionate, building this emotional ability can also lead us to take action and help those around us.


Association for Psychological Science. (2013, May 22). Brain can be trained in compassion, study shows. Retrieved from

Cassell, E. (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2 ed.).  New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 393–403. ISBN 978-0-19-518724-3.

Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. K. Z., Olson, M. C., Rogers, G. M., & Davidson, R. J (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1171-1180 . DOI: 10.1177/0956797612469537

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