Are You Naturally Compassionate?

by | Individual Development, Resources


I really enjoy the television show Brain Games for the information it provides to viewers, as well as the way that it is presented.  There is much that scientists are still discovering about the human mind, and as a result our understanding of the brain has changed dramatically in recent years.  The summer series of the National Geographic Channel program recently aired an episode entitled “Compassion”.

Compassion is defined as “…the ability to understand and empathize with the pain of others.” To feel connected to other human beings. Other than a small percentage of the population with certain personality disorders, such as sociopaths or psychopaths, all human beings have the capacity for compassion. So why does it seem like we don’t very often choose to be compassionate towards someone else?

The program showed some interesting experiments, and this one I found most interesting. Test subject “A” arrives at a receptionist desk and is directed to a room in which they find a man in a white coat – the ‘scientist’. Subject “A” is then seated at a table on which they find a bowl of chili and three bottles containing ‘hot sauce’ – mild, medium and ‘deadly’. They are directed to look up and through a one way mirror. On the other side is another person, test Subject “B” who, they are told, cannot see through the mirror. “A” is told that they are to add hot sauce to the chili from any one of the bottles and in any amount. “B” will then be required to eat the entire bowl of chili. “A” is reminded that “B” cannot and will not see them.   In every case, each of the “A” test subjects added hot sauce from the mild bottle and in generally small amounts.

As the program explained, scientists now believe that human beings are naturally compassionate towards one another. That is, they say, a natural survival instinct. We needed each other to survive a harsh world, so we developed an ability to empathize with others and feel their pain – in this case to inflict the least amount of ‘pain’ on the “B” subjects.

Then a twist was added to the experiment. As each of the “A” test subjects left the reception desk to head down the hallway they were bumped into by a rude person talking on a cell phone, who chastised each “A” for not being more careful. Now after each “A” test subject was seated and given their instructions, they looked up through the one-way mirror to see the person who had bumped into them in the lobby – and realized he was test subject “B”. Some of those “A’s” clarified, “He can’t see me, right?” And some didn’t. But every one added hot sauce from the ‘deadly’ bottle, and usually in large amounts. The previous confrontation, without an apology, prompted the “A” test subjects to universally exact some revenge on “B”. Forget our natural tendency towards compassion!

Then another twist. In these cases, there was the same confrontation between the “A” and “B” test subjects in the lobby. But when each “A” subject entered the room, the scientist in the white coat was very welcoming and friendly. Offered them water. Asked how they were feeling. Commented on their nice smile. They still saw that the person who had bumped into them in the lobby was test subject “B”. But in these cases, none of the “A’s” reached for the “deadly” hot sauce. They chose either the mild or medium and added it in reasonable amounts. Even though they had just run into the same rude person in the lobby, another person, and the way that person treated them, apparently calmed their ‘need for revenge’ and prompted them to act more compassionately.

I find that all fascinating. So here are some reflective questions. To what degree do you believe and act from a perspective of being naturally compassionate towards other human beings?   To what degree would you allow the rudeness of another person influence how you act (react?) towards that human being? To what degree could you, through your interactions and treatment of others, help them to act from their natural tendency towards being compassionate?

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