Social Connection and Compassion vs. Empathy

Posted on Posted in New and Interesting, Teaching

I’m working on a dissertation chapter right now that looks in part at ways people build solidarity within social movements. The general consensus in the literature I’ve read is that solidarity depends on a bond of real or imagined empathy. So, in order to get someone to want to help you or support your cause– which is the general idea behind solidarity– you’ve got to get them to “feel your pain,” or at least to think they do. In the ethnographic research I’ve done, that involves giving testimonies and sharing life stories, often with people in more powerful social or economic positions.

Another place empathy often comes up is in anthropology education. In anthropology classes, we try to make the “exotic other” seem familiar to our students. In a conference workshop I recently attended on how to incorporate deliberative discussion (as opposed to debate) into college classes, we started talking about how to help students productively and respectfully engage different perspectives. The issue of burnout came up: sometimes, when you present a point of view that is radically different from what students believe, they simply shut down. The same thing happens when students are confronted over and over again with situations that seem “extreme” to them– extreme poverty, extreme violence, extreme natural disasters. How do you foster understanding– empathy— rather than burnout?

A side interest of mine– totally unrelated to my research in anthropology, or so I thought– is meditation and contemplative practices. I came across an interesting blog post about a study comparing empathy meditation and compassion meditation. Titled “Managing the Modern World,” the author of the blog post names increasing interaction between people of different backgrounds and points of view as one notable characteristic of our world today. She says, “Not only are we bombarded continuously by the 24-hour news circuit with stories of war, tragedy and human suffering, but we are also more interconnected with people at home and abroad, some of whom hold vastly different world views from our own, leading to potential conflict. The need for connection, kindness and understanding is clear, but it’s hard to remain open and caring when we feel buried by the stresses of daily life.”

Remaining open to different world views is a fairly fundamental aspect of anthropological methodology– it’s kind of our whole way of operating! Naturally, that sentence grabbed my attention. The author suggests that compassion meditation might be one way to manage the stress of dealing with this diverse and cosmopolitan world and mitigating conflict. Related to mindfulness meditation, compassion meditation is “specifically intended to generate a state of compassion in the practitioner– the feeling of understanding another’s suffering and being motivated to help.”

So what’s the difference between empathy and compassion? Because isn’t that feeling what we’re trying to generate when we want to foster empathy in our students? Or when social movements try to develop ties with potential political allies?

Yes and no. Empathy, the author of the blog post notes, is “feeling the same emotional state as another person,” which can include negative feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. Compassion, on the other hand, includes feeling “a desire to act to alleviate another’s pain.” The negative feelings associated with empathy can sometimes lead to burnout rather than productive engagement or action.

In an article about educating for empathy among Greek Cypriot children, cultural anthropologist Michalinos Zembylas similarly notes that empathy education can have ambiguous consequences. During a unit on the history of the conflict and Turkish occupation of the island, children expressed both anger and hatred as well as sadness and compassion for Turkish Cypriots. Similarly, in her discussion of citizenship education in El Salvador, Andrea Dyrness notes that wealthy students who were exposed to extreme poverty through service-learning projects were likely to feel apathetic towards social inequality in their country, rather than be spurred to seek a solution.

In my mind, this ambiguity parallels discussions of mimesis– or imitation– in anthropology and documentary studies. Imitating a dominant group’s cultural behavior does not necessarily mean you endorse them, as Michael Taussig argues. I remember hearing an anecdote in a documentary film studies class about mass imitation following a particularly emotional film about riots. The entire audience left the theater and proceeded to mob the street, destroying private property in their wake. But just because they were rioting doesn’t mean they necessarily felt the same convictions of the group portrayed in the documentary film. Likewise, just because you’ve inspired empathy in another person, doesn’t mean they’ll do anything (productive) about how they feel.

So where does compassion fit in here?

An earlier article, authored by a group of cognitive anthropologists, used compassion meditation techniques to train people’s emotional responses to others. One of the authors explains that the idea is, “to condition one’s mind to recognize how we are all inter-dependent, and that everybody desires to be happy and free from suffering at a deep level.” The researchers found that people who practiced compassion meditation were better able to interpret the facial expressions of others, something they say is key to building respectful and empathetic relationships.

In the original study, researchers found that compassion meditation training had a profound impact on real-world behaviors. Study participants were asked to return to the lab for post-study evaluation. Little did they know, it was a set-up. They were asked to take the last free chair in a room filled with other waiting people. The test was: Would they give up their seat when a woman on crutches– obviously in pain– entered? Those that had received training in compassion meditation overcame the peer pressure called the “bystander effect” (when every other person in the room remained seated, exerting a strong social pressure for the study participant to do the same) and were five times more likely to give up their seat than those who had not received compassion meditation training.

I’m not (necessarily) advocating that instructors start assigning their students homework in compassion meditation, or that they “train” students to respond to others’ emotions in certain ways. But I think that framing difference/ otherness/ alterity as an issue of compassion– rather than empathy– might be a way to avoid burnout. In that sense, compassion meditation techniques may be useful to both anthropology instructors and social movement activists.

I don’t think the issue is one with an either-or solution, though. The distinction between empathy and compassion is pretty fuzzy, and one can easily lead to the other (and vice versa). Teaching in order to foster a connection with others across difference is a balancing act, and I would be interested in hearing how other instructors manage it!

Please leave your comments below…

Study Cited: Differential Pattern of Functional Brain Plasticity After Compassion and Empathy Training

Further Reading: There is a large literature on empathy and compassion, both popular and academic.
— Check out Building a Culture of Empathy’s online conference.
— An earlier study on compassion meditation conducted by anthropologist Jennifer Mascaro and others, with conclusions that parallel the study above
There is also a program at the University of Michigan, of which I was previously unaware (go figure) that studies empathy and altruism
Another Emory study used compassion meditation to teach elementary school kids to be kinder to each other
— Finally, if you’re interested in mindfulness meditation, take a look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness  or Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness

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