The ‘other’ side of compassion: How the self avoids responsibility for past wrongs

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We feel compassion when we see others suffering. Previous research has shown that this can evoke positive feelings for other people or groups, as well as stimulate a desire to help. This is because compassion entails focusing entirely on the suffering of the other: as a result, we can offer selfless help.

The goal of this PhD project was to investigate whether compassion can also produce the opposite effect. We specifically investigated past situations where people caused the suffering of others themselves, or belonged to a group that did. Confrontations with such events can be painful, because we are strongly motivated to maintain a positive perception of ourselves and the groups we belong to. We suspected that compassion may offer a subtle way out in these situations: exactly because we focus exclusively on the suffering of the other, we do not have to concern ourselves with our harmful behaviour that caused it in the first place.

Our results support this prediction. The degree to which people identify with the group or with the person they were when they committed the harm turned out to be a crucial factor: when people were not strongly identified, compassion led to an increase in self-critical emotions (such as guilt, anger and shame) and feelings of responsibility. But when they were strongly identified, compassion decreased these emotions and feelings. Our research thus shows that the function of emotions strongly depends on people’s underlying motivations.
Translated title of the contributionDe 'andere' kant van compassie
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Groningen
  • Spears, Russell, Supervisor
  • Epstude, Kai, Co-supervisor
Award date29-Jan-2018
Place of Publication[Groningen]
Print ISBNs978-94-034-0369-4
Electronic ISBNs978-94-034-0368-7
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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