NYT article: “Compassion Made Easy”, by David de Steno

Dear friends,

I’d like to share an excerpt from this New York Times article from July 14, 2012:

“ALL the major religions place great importance on compassion. Whether it’s the parable of the
good Samaritan in Christianity, Judaism’s “13 attributes of compassion” or the Buddha’s statement
that “loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice,” empathy with the suffering of others is
seen as a special virtue that has the power to change the world. This idea is often articulated by the
Dalai Lama, who argues that individual experiences of compassion radiate outward and increase
harmony for all.
As a social psychologist interested in the emotions, I long wondered whether this spiritual
understanding of compassion was also scientifically accurate.

The results were striking: the simple act of tapping one’s hands in synchrony with another caused
our participants to report feeling more similar to their partners and to have greater compassion for
their plight: it increased the number of people who helped their partner by 31 percent and
increased the average time spent helping from one minute to more than seven.

What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what
befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively
trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.
What does this mean for cultivating compassion in society? It means that effortful adherence to
religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though
clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. There is nothing special
about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s
neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as
(say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.
Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of commonalities would generate
greater empathy among all of us — and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way.

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