Build Altruism with Compassion Meditation

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city! A city that is uncomfortable when anyone is homeless or hungry. Uncomfortable if every child isn’t loved and given rich opportunities to grow and thrive. Uncomfortable when as a community we don’t treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated.” ~ Karen Armstrong


Homo Sapiens is a very successful species. In part its success has been due to it being a very social species. Members of the species form groups beyond the family unit and work together for the common good. Members also take care of one another. Individuals will sometimes sacrifice their own well-being and safety to help another. This is termed altruistic behavior. The fact that it sometimes actually reduces the likelihood of the individual’s survival appears to be a contradiction to the ideas of evolution that emphasize individual survival.


Altruistic behavior, however, is not rare. It is, in fact, often the rule and not the exception. Soldiers put their own lives at risk to save a buddy. Doctors and nurses risking infection, rush into ebola riddled villages to treat the sick and dying. Young adults leave their jobs and careers to tend to an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s Disease. These are rather extreme examples but altruistic behavior occurs in many simple ways on a daily basis. We routinely give to charities which benefit people on the other side of the world. We donate our time as volunteers to build houses for the disadvantaged. We roll down our car windows and hand money to a homeless person on a street corner. The list is endless.


So, why do we engage so freely in this behavior that contradicts evolutionary theory? One idea is that it is promoted by our compassion. This is our ability to identify with the difficulties of others, put ourselves in their shoes, and feel their suffering. Although reasonable and logical this interpretation needs scientific confirmation. A callous interpretation of this behavior is that this compassion makes us uncomfortable, makes us suffer, and we do things to reduce our own suffering and make ourselves feel better. A kinder interpretation is that we have been taught to be compassionate and this energizes altruism. This notion would predict that engaging in practices that develop compassion would increase altruism. This idea, however, needs scientific testing and evaluation.


In today’s Research News article “The Role of Compassion in Altruistic Helping and Punishment Behavior”

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Weng and colleagues examine the relationship of compassion to altruism in the laboratory and test the effectiveness of a compassion amplifying practice on the likelihood of compassionate behaviors. They first measured the empathetic concern of the participants with a paper and pencil test and then had them play in the laboratory a 3-person game developed to measure altruistic behaviors, either altruistic helping, in which the participant gave to another thereby reducing their own reward, or altruistic punishment where participants took away from another resulting in an overall reduction in their own reward. They found that the higher the level of trait compassion (empathetic concern) that the participant had the more they tended to help another to their own detriment. They also found that the higher the level of trait compassion the less they tended to punish another to their own detriment.


In a second experiment, Weng and colleagues randomly assigned participants to either a compassion meditation group or to a reappraisal group. They were then trained for two weeks either to meditate on the suffering of others, wish them well, and visualize compassion emanating from their heart, or to a control condition involving training on reappraising situations to lower stress and emotional reactions to stress. The participants then came to the laboratory and played the 3-person altruism game. They found that the compassion meditation group provided altruistic help significantly more than the reappraisal group. In fact, they spent 87% more money to help others.


This experiment, although somewhat artificial, suggests that compassion is highly related to altruism and that training in compassion increases altruism. Hence, these results support the notion that altruism occurs because of trained compassion. It also shows that altruism can be encouraged and amplified with compassion training. So, we can create more compassionate people and thereby a more altruistic world by specifically educating people in compassion.


So, build altruism with compassion meditation.


“Compassion is natural; you don’t have to force it; just open to the difficulty, the struggle, the stress, the impact of events, the sorrow and strain in the other person; open your heart, let yourself be moved, and let compassion flow through you. Feel what compassion’s like in your body — in your chest, throat, and face. Sense the way it softens your thoughts, gentles your reactions. Know it so you can find your way back again.” – Rick Hanson


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies



Study Summary

Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Hessenthaler, H. C., Stodola, D. E., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). The Role of Compassion in Altruistic Helping and Punishment Behavior. PLoS ONE, 10(12), e0143794.



Compassion, the emotional response of caring for another who is suffering and that results in motivation to relieve suffering, is thought to be an emotional antecedent to altruistic behavior. However, it remains unclear whether compassion enhances altruistic behavior in a uniform way or is specific to sub-types of behavior such as altruistic helping of a victim or altruistic punishment of a transgressor. We investigated the relationship between compassion and subtypes of altruistic behavior using third-party paradigms where participants 1) witnessed an unfair economic exchange between a transgressor and a victim, and 2) had the opportunity to either spend personal funds to either economically a) help the victim or b) punish the transgressor. In Study 1, we examined whether individual differences in self-reported empathic concern (the emotional component of compassion) was associated with greater altruistic helping or punishment behavior in two independent samples. For participants who witnessed an unfair transaction, trait empathic concern was associated with greater helping of a victim and had no relationship to punishment. However, in those who decided to punish the transgressor, participants who reported greater empathic concern decided to punish less. In Study 2, we directly enhanced compassion using short-term online compassion meditation training to examine whether altruistic helping and punishment were increased after two weeks of training. Compared to an active reappraisal training control group, the compassion training group gave more to help the victim and did not differ in punishment of the transgressor. Together, these two studies suggest that compassion is related to greater altruistic helping of victims and is not associated with or may mitigate altruistic punishment of transgressors.