Does a person who has experienced personal difficulties develop more sympathy for others, or does the very fact of surmounting those difficulties make a person less sympathetic toward people in a similar situation?
That was the question asked in the New York Times last week by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. In an article called "The Funny Thing About Adversity" he analyses the varying and sometimes unpredictable human reactions to adversity.
Think of the stereotypical self-made man or woman. They often think that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, so other people should be able to do the same, if only they worked harder or studied more or had more self-discipline. Or consider the abused child, who then as an adult goes on to abuse their own children. But then think of the person who's survived a serious illness. They often join a support group, help others get treatment, raise money for the cause.
Are some people just naturally more sympathetic, while others are hard-hearted and self-absorbed?
No, says DeSteno. The answer is not in our hearts so much as it's in our self-interest. "Compassion isn't as purely selfless as it might seem," he concludes after years of study. While it might, in part, be a genuine response to the suffering of others, "It is also a strategy for regaining your own footing -- for resilience in the face of trauma. After all, having strong social relationships is one of the best predictors of psychological well-being, and so anything that enhances your bonds with others -- like expressing compassion for them -- makes you more resilient."
He and a colleague conducted several experiments, and they concluded in general people who experienced adversity in life -- who were a victim of violence or a natural disaster, or who lost a loved one -- were more likely to empathize with others in trouble. They felt more compassion for victims, and donated more money or were more likely to help out victims.
The wrinkle in the equation comes when people encounter someone who has suffered the exact same hardship as they did. Then they show less compassion. Why? According to DeSteno the answer is because people remember their past problems with a fuzzy lens. The problems are recalled as less distressing than they actually were. And therefore people don't appreciate just how difficult the challenge is for other people.
So, for example, people who had been bullied earlier in life felt less compassion for the victims of bullying -- although they felt more compassion for the unemployed. Meanwhile, people who had previously gone through a period of unemployment felt less sympathy for people currently unemployed, but felt plenty of compassion for victims of bullying.
What do you think about this? Does it make sense?
In my case, I have a history of cancer in my family. Both my parents died of cancer; but they were old. My older brother died of cancer in 1964, when he was 23 years old.
One of my daughter's best friends came down with the same kind of cancer when she was in college. But now, almost 50 years later, the friend was cured. At first, I found myself resenting this girl. It just wasn't fair. Then one day my daughter brought her friend over to the house. I saw how the girl had lost weight and was wearing a wig to cover her bald head. And I didn't resent her anymore. I felt sympathy and compassion.
Even so, to this day, when I hear of an acquaintance who gets some kind of cancer, my first reaction is relief. Better them than me. Like the soldier whose comrade gets shot, and feels relief that it wasn't him. But then, when I face the reality, I feel plenty of compassion. Which is why I try to do the cancer walk every year.
There's another element to it, I think. The closer to home the
problem, the more it disturbs us. If someone we know in town dies, it's sad. If someone in our own family dies it's devastating. But when a hundred people are blown up in Africa or the Middle East, we may not even hear about it, and if we do, it perhaps only registers as a sad shake of the head.
Maybe there's only so much compassion to go around. Still, I think we all need more of it.