How being compassionate shapes social preference


Learning to cooperate and get along with others is fundamental to what it means to be a human. While early research in psychology was focused on self-relevant outcomes, research has naturally expanded to consider the effect on broader social preferences. Compassion is one emotion that relates to others by understanding the suffering or need of another person.  Prosociality is another emotion of interest that predicts social preference in scenarios where power is unevenly distributed. Despite robust research in this area, less is known about whether the state versus trait levels of compassion influence social preference. 

The study

This study led by a team at UC Berkeley investigated how trait and state levels of compassion influences social preferences using three complementary studies. In the first study, a group of participants answered questions about their emotions, prosociality, and personality. In the second study, it followed a similar design but also included an experimental video to induce compassion, pride, and neutral emotion. The final study built on the first two studies but elicited state emotion through a writing exercise where participants had to recall an emotional event. This experimental design is supposed to recreate an emotion in the laboratory that people might experience naturally.


Importantly, trait compassion predicted more prosociality that valued the others by decreasing the desire to have advantage over the others. The authors note that this stands in contrast to expectations where those with bleeding hearts prefer self-sacrifice. Rather, compassionate people prefer equality for all, even themselves. The study’s findings converge with a larger body of evidence that broader social judgments are influenced by trait emotions. Compared to state levels of compassion, this study provides evidence that trait compassion uniquely relates to general and abstract social preferences. These findings underscore how trait compassion might help us cooperate with those immediately around us as well as uphold more abstract notions of fairness and equality. 

Read the full article here.

Translate »