Suppressing Feelings of Compassion Makes People Feel Less Moral

It's normal to not always act on your sense of compassion -- for example, by walking past a beggar on the street without giving them any money. Maybe you want to save your money or avoid engaging with a homeless person. But even if suppressing compassion avoids these costs, it may carry a personal cost of its own, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. After people suppress compassionate feelings, an experiment shows, they lose a bit of their commitment to morality.

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It seems as if tolerating begging is effectively an assault on the public's capacity for morality. It's a complication to the moral dilemma of caring for those unable to care for themselves. Begging can be, in some cases, a form of organized crime where children a deliberately crippled to increase their effectiveness as cash cows. In other societies it's the only socially acceptable way for the disabled to survive. In times of disaster, public or private, it's the moral survival tactic of last resort, the other option being crime. I don't have any easy answers.


When people feel helpless and overwhelmed, facing the victims of war for example, this may be a mechanism by which survivors become hardened and lose their moral anchor. This fits with what Chris Hedges describes about how war changes us in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He says,

War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks just below the surface within all of us.

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Tags: moral decay, suppressing compassion

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Unless you're religious or a philosopher (more faith-based perspectives), you've probably concluded, using biological models, that there are no essences such as meaning, morality, miasmas, souls or great and jealous ghosts.

Our biases and social contracts arise from our psychology. Certainly, unless we're damaged goods, compassion (empathy), of one kind or another, is a common denominator within our species. 

I'd say the root of morality is ultimately self-interest. Most of us obviously follow certain moral codes because we have emotions of compassions and empathy, but there's why we have those in the first place: as social animals, it's rational and reasonable for us to figure out how to live together to the best of our abilities.

We encourage and teach compassion and kindness amongst ourselves ultimately because such desires are good for all of us, and we'd all like to live in a world of compassion and kindness. Such attitudes may seem egotistical and cynical, but that's not true: there's nothing ignoble about the rational realisation that we are part of a social fabric which binds and sustains all of us.

I enjoyed reading everyone replies. They are all wonderful. It's good to see the secular viewpoint on this.

No, sex is.  Procreation is the root of all things.  People don't care when there is no bump and grind.

Not everything is about sex. If what you said was true, then I shouldn't care a whip about anything, since I've had a good bit of a drought in that area. Quite wrong...

I don't reach out to others because of a sexual need; it's a social want, to connect with people on common grounds, to hold meaning through friendship and have meaning in a very clear but simple way.

That's not to say I'm asexual (though I do have a friend who is, and she'd be a bit offended, I think)--but I think in this case, sex is not the root of compassion. It may be for some, but not for many of us.

I disagree.  Say what you will but survival screams louder than all others.  The main goal of ANY organism is to survive, continue on, pass on the genes.  Sex is way our species(as well as many others) does this.  So bottom line is yes, it is all about sex. Sex=Survival; everything wants to survive.  Once again, sex is the base motivating factor in all endeavours.  And I'm not saying that "I won't do anything unless I get sex", I'm saying that it is the "ROOT" of morality, and all things, like the thread says, not that sex is the ONLY  reason to do anything; that's a nymphomaniac.

I recently watched a documentary making a similar argument for fear of death being the primary motivating factor in humans. It is the yin to the yang of sexual desire. 

I agree with you, Nerdlass. :-)

Equal to men in every way? It's been a while since I've read up on the Vikings but I'm fairly sure women were excluded from political life and more or less under the authority of their husband or father; depending on the precise point we're looking at that might have been marginally better than their Southern counter-parts, but not by much.

Pagan religions had God's and Goddesses because their deities reflected all the aspects of their daily life: some of these were associated with males and others with females. The idea that because they had more Goddesses, women were more likely to be regarded as equal, is to project democratic ideas on ancient religions: they didn't see it that way.

If you look at other pagan societies like the Romans, the Greeks, the Aztecs and many others, you'll find that they are rigidly patriarchal despite their seemingly egalitarian Pantheon.

Be careful with letting modern preconceptions colour the way you view history ;)

Kind regards,


Exactly right. The superstitious not only try to dehumanize atheists but try to deny that the  emotional traits we share with other mammals exist, calling it instinct in other species, god-given morality in H. sapiens.

There was a piece In the New York Times that described the Great Divide in American society as being between valuing the sacred and valuing the compassionate. True enough, faith-based thinking gives cover for cruelty in all its forms.

While no southern European would have named his daughter Erica Eriksdotter, nevertheless, the mother was ignored. Yes, marginally less sexist but no cigar. 

I have always contended, when confronted by the statement " you're an atheist, you can't have morals because morals come from god" in the following manner. All holy books were written by man. Not by some diety who inspired/revealed them. Since they were writen by man, the moral precepts that we all hold come from man. I believe that the nature of humans, being social creatures, is where morality/ethics rose from. We were just trying to get along, and codified the things that seemed to work (mostly worked) so we could have a rational discourse and not immediately grab for the rock, or club, or spear. It doesn't always work, as we well know. But we do keep evolving (societally) and trying. Yes, we are a violent species, but say to yourself, today, I will not react in a violent manner. Just for today. When tomorrow comes, repeat for that day, and so on. Morality will grow stronger for that, I believe.


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