Compassion / Evolutionary Psychology Analysis – What Fun!

Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review

Jennifer Goetz / Emotion, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, where he directs the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab. He is also the founder and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas PhD. is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center. She is a co-instructor of its Science of Happiness online course and helps run the Expanding Gratitude project.

Note: I’ve removed in-text reference links for readability; they are in the original.


What is compassion? And how did it evolve? In this review, we integrate three evolutionary arguments that converge on the hypothesis that compassion evolved as a distinct affective experience whose primary function is to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer. Our empirical review reveals compassion to have distinct appraisal processes attuned to undeserved suffering, distinct signaling behavior related to caregiving patterns of touch, posture, and vocalization, and a phenomenological experience and physiological response that orients the individual to social approach. This response profile of compassion differs from those of distress, sadness, and love, suggesting that compassion is indeed a distinct emotion. We conclude by considering how compassion shapes moral judgment and action, how it varies across different cultures, and how it may engage specific patterns of neural activation, as well as emerging directions of research.

Compassion is controversial. Within studies of morality, theoretical claims about compassion reach contrasting conclusions: some theorists consider compassion to be an unreliable guide to judgments about right and wrong, whereas others view compassion as a source of principled moral judgment.  Within debates about the nature of altruism, researchers have sought to document that a brief state like compassion is a proximal determinant of prosocial behavior. Within evolutionist thought, controversies have swirled around whether compassion and sympathy are the products of evolutionary processes, as Darwin assumed, or tendencies too costly for the self to align with the tenets of evolutionary theory.

These debates highlight the question that motivates the present review: What is compassion? Ironically, despite pervasive theoretical claims and numerous studies of a state-like episode of compassion, it is largely absent from traditional emotion taxonomies and research. Instead, compassion has been described as a vicarious experience of another’s distress; a blend of sadness and love or as a subtype or variant of love Although recent authors have treated compassion as an emotion there has yet to be an integrative review of the evidence relevant to the question “What is compassion?”

The central goal of this paper, therefore, is to present a functional analysis of compassion, and to review the evidence related to what is known about the appraised antecedents, experience, display behavior, and physiology associated with compassion. Before delving into our own theoretical account, we clarify our definition of compassion and distinguish it from related states.

Go to original for: Definitions of Compassion and Levels of Analysis of Affective Experience; Theoretical Accounts of Compassion; An Evolutionary Approach to Compassion; Compassion-Related Appraisals: Sensitivity to Suffering Constrained by Costs and Benefits; Sensitivity to Benefits: Appraisals of Self and Goal Relevance – and more!




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