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

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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.

Is it really compassion to give money to the homeless begging on the street? You are probably contributing to the cycle of poverty that keeps people very poor and homeless. It saddens me to see people that way, but the fact is, most homeless need the kind of help that a single person cannot give. PSychiatric health, physical health care all the things that help with treatment and care. Serious compassion must come from groups of people willing to put in the work for people on the street. If there was an accident and you were first on the scene, your first human response would be to help immediately but if someone is injured badly you don't do something that could jeopardize their condition out of compassion, you call 911 and wait for paramedics.

Compassion and morality are built into the human character and reflected in our group behavior, the paramedics for example, the hospital that can't turn indigents away. THe big brothers and big sisters. Librarians for one, who organize knowledge so that it can be accessed by as many people as possible. Food drives, clothes drives, people who teach remedial math and literature at little or no cost so that MAYBE they can make a difference in the future of humankind. THis is compassion, but its focused in a way that trys to address the complexity of suffering. Acknowledging that you don't know what to do about the homeless problem is a good start to realizing that no amount of spare change will make any difference. and really, that emotion that you are satisfying by giving change is called pity, not compassion. You pity a person and then give them a token to make yourself feel better, and really to give yourself a heightened sense of superiority. Compassion and morality are duties and the satisfaction you get is about the same as you might get from cleaning a bathroom. It's work. A job that humans can't quit because it's a survival mechanism. And even in war, there are medics that will be on the front line to care for the wounded. War is as old as time and a necessary part of existence, and even in the ugliest of our nature, compassion exists. You have to know where to look.

I would also say that morality is on the incline compared to history Slavery is a crime around the entire world, , more groups of people are claiming the same standards of justice that only an elite few were privileged with just decades before. If you don't believe me look at how many international committees there are, then look at how many there were before the nation state. Theres an international committee of chess players, and they help keep a level of standards in chess to be applied across the globe,  almost all IC's are dedicated to maintaining peace so that they can do what they exist to do. There's International post office committees making sure we can correspond over seas. Medical, waste, you name it. all of these agencies have people actively working to improve the relationships of our species because they recognize how important it is to act out of compassion and community because its beneficial to our survival. That's compassion, a well thought out group effort united in a common goal. 

This is a fascinating post. Thank you for bringing it up. I think you have hit one of the issues that makes morality much more complex than most people are willing to admit.

Personally, at risk of oversimplifying, I think that empathy is the root of morality, and I think that compassion emerges from empathy. When I reflected on how I respond to begging, I thought about some of the factors that come into play, including whether or not I believe the beggar. I also find myself in a sort of gridlock about equity. I can't possibly help everyone in need, so I have to decide whether to help the person in front of me. If I decide not to, does that equate to a lack of compassion for that person, or a determination that my resources can help more somewhere else? 

I can genuinely say that I have felt great compassion for people but have chosen for various reasons to not give them money. The question of whether or not these were moral decisions is a difficult one.




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