If compassion is hard-wired, why do people do bad things?

Thanks to decades of scientific research we now know something wonderful about the human condition: we are wired for compassion.

And when you think about it, that makes a great deal of sense.

We show a predisposition to care for others whether they be friends, neighbors, partners, parents, children, or colleagues. 

This motivation has evolved from our earliest caring relationships – those between a parent and their offspring. Through sexual selection and the establishment of group norms the proclivity to care soon became an essential aspect of our nature – and key to our survival.

Without compassion – without that ability to identify suffering and act to alleviate it – we could never have survived as a species. It’s the glue that has held us together and helped us navigate challenges and threats. It’s the inspiration behind society-benefitting innovations like medicines and human rights legislation.  

But just because something is natural or innate does not mean that it is always present in our behavior. We all need sleep, for example, but sometimes our anxiety or the presence of some other disturbance can prevent us from relaxing into rest. 

In much the same way, the flicking of a few biological or psychological switches can result in the inhibition of compassion.

Cultures which value competition and self-advancement tend to be lower on compassion.

Sadly, contemporary society has become very effective at pushing those buttons.

Compassion is suppressed in competitive winner-takes-all environments where status, wealth, and power are prized. It also tends to be inhibited in communities of extreme inequality or amongst those with very large amounts of wealthTribalism and in- and out-group mentalities similarly reduce felt compassion as does chronic exposure to fear and emotion overload. Any of this sound familiar?

The experience of suppressing our compassion in this way is painful. We feel it in our isolation from others, our anxiety over endemic and systemic suffering, and our desire to escape our own self-flagellation. 

So how have these values come to dominate if they are so harmful? Because we are social creatures. We want to be liked, valued, and included. Rebelling against the norm and separating oneself from the crowd is always hard and often costly. We live this way because others do. 

Which is why we need to form a new crowd. It’s why the GCC is creating a coalition of millions who, together, will call for, speak with, and act from compassion. 

Most people have the sense that the way we are living is unsustainable, unjust, and unnatural. We have to offer them an alternative – for our health and happiness and the good of the planet. 

Marcela Matos is Clinical Psychologist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and a member of the GCC Board. She is writing in a personal capacity.

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