Is compassion contagious?

 what happens when we try to influence compassion

I stumbled across an interesting study last week. 

It tested compassion and whether it could be affected by circumstances.

Here are the details:

Participants were required to choose which of three hot sauce options to add to a bowl of chilli that would then be given to a second participant who would be required to consume the chilli in order to be paid.

The participants were seated on either side of a wall with a one-way glass window that allowed ONLY the participant adding the hot sauce to see the other participant.

The hot sauce choices were labelled: 'mild,' 'medium' and 'death.'

In the first scenario, participants, without exception, chose to add the 'mild' hot sauce.

The experimenters concluded that this choice illustrates our natural default setting of compassion.

In the second scenario, the experimenters put compassion to the test by having the chilli-eating participant (who was IN on the experiment) aggressively and unapologetically bump into the hot-sauce-adding participant as they walked through the reception area prior to the instructions and execution of the experiment.

Unsurprisingly, upon seeing the chilli-eating participant on the other side of the one-way window, who had minutes ago behaved in an overtly rude and unrepentant manner, the hot-sauce adding participants, without exception, added the 'death' hot sauce to the chilli.

The experimenters concluded that given a dose of perceived injustice, compassion is quickly replaced with revenge in the form of hot sauce.

In the third scenario, the experimenters once again attempted to impact the level of compassion expressed. Following the rude encounter between the participants in the reception area, the hot-sauce-adding participant was greeted with an overt gesture of kindness and consideration by the experimenter as they issued their instructions to the participant.

The experimenters found that this gesture of kindness mitigated any perceived injustice and need for revenge since the hot sauce chosen fluctuated between 'mild' and 'medium,' rather than the previously chosen 'death.'

What was concluded from this simple study is that compassion is contagious.

In other words, the behavior of another can be an influencing factor on your own behavior.

While this may be the case, or rather, while it may look very much like this is the case, I want to point back to the experimenter's statement following the first scenario; our default setting is one of compassion.

While the experimenters played with the circumstances (outside factors), what may have been overlooked in their conclusions was the role of the participants' state of mind during each of the scenarios.

I would suggest that it is not exclusively the outside factors (as compelling as they may be) that have affected the choice of hot sauce for the participants, but rather their level of clarity in the moment of decision-making. 

In the first scenario, the participants unanimously chose the 'mild' hot sauce thereby illustrating a natural level of compassion (base level) given a relatively clear state of mind wherein no personal thinking about the second participant is evident.

In the second scenario, the participants unanimously chose the ‘death’ hot sauce thereby suggesting that their default setting for compassion had been affected by their state of mind and their personal thinking given their rough "encounter" in the reception area.

In the third scenario, the participants choice in hot sauce fluctuated between 'mild' and 'medium' thereby suggesting that some participants were able to move beyond their personal thinking to return to their natural state of compassion and choose from a clear head while others still retained some personal thinking about the second participant thereby influencing their choice in hot sauce.

The fact that the results in the third scenario are not consistent across the board indicates that the greater influencing factor is not the behavior of the experimenter (outside factor/circumstance), but rather the state of mind of the person making the decision (inside factor/mindset).

Perhaps the experimenter’s behavior simply reminded the participant of their own natural and preferred state of being which in turn reduced their level of personal thinking and gave space for compassion to surface once again.

Perhaps what was witnessed and experienced was not a contagion but rather an insight?



Lana Bastianutti