Suppressing Feelings of Compassion Makes People Feel Less Moral

ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2012) — It’s normal to not always act on your sense of compassion — for example, by walking past a beggar on the street without giving them any money. Maybe you want to save your money or avoid engaging with a homeless person. But even if suppressing compassion avoids these costs, it may carry a personal cost of its own, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. After people suppress compassionate feelings, an experiment shows, they lose a bit of their commitment to morality.

Normally, people assume that ignoring their compassionate feeling doesn’t have any cost — that you can just suppress your sympathy and walk on. But Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the authors of the paper, suspected that wasn’t true. “Compassion is such a powerful emotion. It’s been called a moral barometer,” Cameron says. A sense of other people’s suffering may even be the foundation of morality — which suggests that suppressing that sense might make people feel less moral.

The researchers showed each participant in their experiment a slideshow of 15 images of subjects including homeless people, crying babies, and victims of war and famine. Each participant was given one of three tasks. Some were told to try not to feel sympathy, some were told to try not to feel distress (an unpleasant, non-moral feeling), and the rest were told to experience whatever emotions come to them.

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