Saturday, February 11, 2012

understanding is not the same as compassion

Wow, I didn’t even know this kind of research was possible, but it blew my mind.  I read through the methods pretty carefully to make sure that it was legit.  It was published in a very reputable journal by brain researchers from MIT, so they have the credibility.  Here is a summary of what they found.

They had Israelis, Arabs, and South Americans read different stories about individuals from all three groups.  All of the stories involved either the person experiencing physical pain (stepping on a thumbtack) or emotional pain (not getting an expected raise at work).  They did fMRI on three areas of the brain.  The area that we use to predict the physical experience of another person, the area that we use to predict the emotional thoughts of another person, and the area where we feel compassion.  They also asked the people to verbally rate how much physical or emotional pain they thought the person in the story was feeling, and compassion they felt for the person in the story.

So here is what shocked me.  What matters when modeling both the physical and emotional pain of the other person is based on experience and knowledge.  So Israelis could accurately predict how much pain the Israelis in the story felt.  They could also accurately predict the pain felt by the Arabs, who they know pretty well.  But they were less accurate at predicting the pain of the South Americans, who they don’t have as much experience/knowledge of (on average).  The same thing was true of the Arabs.  They could accurately predict their own pain and the Israelis’ pain, but were less accurate for the South Americans.  This was true of the fMRI areas and the verbal reports. So it wasn’t any kind of unconscious self-deception.

But the bias appeared with the feelings of compassion.  The conflict groups (Arabs to Israelis and Israelis to Arabs) were lower in the fMRI and the verbal reports than either the self-group or the distant unknown out-group.  So Arabs felt the Israeli's pain, they just didn't care.  And vice versa.  But both groups did care for their own group and for the South Americans.  Somewhere in between actual prediction of the pain and compassion for the pain, the conflict group goes down and the distant unknown group goes up.  Again, it was true of both the fMRI and the verbal reports.  So it is not self-deception, it is something really electronic in the way the brain is wired.  Whether it is conscious or unconscious, our brains electrically add compassion to distant groups when we think it is deserved, but it decreases compassion to the conflict group because we think it is not deserved. 

Not a good finding when it comes to hoping for eventual peace.  Facts don’t seem to matter. A better understanding of the other person’s situation won’t help, because that group doesn’t “deserve” compassion, even if their pain is real.

The next paper in this journal is by University of Michigan researchers on political candidates. Can’t wait to read that one.

1 comment:

Cavolo said...

Thank you for posting about this very interesting yet somewhat discouraging finding.
I am a graduate student in a Conflict Resolution M.A. program and I think this is vital research to be discussed among the students and professors.
Thus far in my graduate school experience,I have noticed that people (students, professors and practitioners) tend to talk about understanding and compassion as if they are one and the same.
What journal was this study published in? I would like to share it with some of my professors and classmates.