design of technologies can encouragethe development of compassionateattitudes and elicit compassionatestates in the face of social problems,we will not only help to address thoseproblems, but also improve the well-being of all involved.
TOWARD DESIGN STRATEGIES
TO FOSTER COMPASSION
How exactly do we design for software,
environments, and experiences in
ways that support or even develop
compassion and the resilience and
action orientation it confers? This
remains a formidable and open
research question, but early evidence
points to a number of leads. First, we
know design can impact compassion, as
researchers have methods for eliciting
compassionate states that include the
use of imagery, video, narrative, and
support for meditation practices, all
of which have been incorporated into
digital experience. Based on research
in multiple disciplines, we suggest the
following themes as starting points
for research and practice related to
designing for compassion:
• Addressing appraisals of
• Supporting feelings of agency
when empathy leads to compassion
and compassion to action (altruism).
We have visualized the relationship
between these three concepts in
Naturally, both empathy andcompassion are critical to humanrelationships and to well-being, butonly one of them could be considered atype of resilience.
COMPASSION AS RESILIENCE
If you put a monk in an f MRImachine, gave him tragic stories toread, and then watched his brainshow patterns of positive emotion,would you be concerned? Recentneuroscience studies with expertsand novices trained in either empathyor compassion have revealed thesurprising finding that compassiontriggers positive affect. As Klimekiand colleagues have put it, “Findingssuggest that the deliberate cultivationof compassion offers a new copingstrategy that fosters positive affecteven when confronted with thedistress of others” [ 3]. The idea thatcompassion elicits positive affect inthe face of suffering is remarkable, butalso key to understanding how it couldconfer resilience in even the direst ofcircumstances.
Remarkably, compassion cultivationdoes not dull one’s emotionalreaction to pain, but instead resultsin an alternate response, specifically:reducing amygdala activationassociated with threat perception butincreasing responsiveness to suffering[ 4]. This supports the notion thatcompassion is highly sensitive tosuffering but responds with caring andapproach rather than with distress oravoidance.
It seems reasonable to concludethat the positive emotion that comeswith compassion is not schadenfreudebut rather affiliation—those feelings
Ithat make us feel closer to others and motivated to care for them. Another emarkable finding about compassion is that despite its connection towitnessing suffering, it has beenshown to increase our well-being,not only through increased socialconnectedness but also through stressreduction. Whereas empathic distresscan lead to elevated heart rate andskin conductance associated withstress, compassion responses triggerheart-rate deceleration and loweredskin conductance consistent withthe brain prepping for caregivingand other-focused attention [ 2] (seeTable 1). The stress-buffering effectof compassion vs. empathy-relateddistress is manifest in the phenomenaof “compassion satisfaction” vs.
“burnout” among aid workers.
Numerous studies have also linkedcompassionate lifestyles to healthoutcomes and greater longevity.
(For an accessible summary ofthe evidence, see the 2013 article“Compassionate Mind, Healthy Body”[ 5].)
Stress reduction, affiliation,and action orientation in theface of difficulty sound a lot likecharacteristics of resilience. If the
Mirrors same emotion as other Doesn’t necessarily include same emotionInward focus (internal experience) Outward focus (approach)
Empathy (as empathic distress) can prompt usto avoid or close our eyes to curb pain causedby another’s suffering.
Compassion physiologically preps the bodyfor approach and caregiving.
Distress-related facial expressions
and display behaviors
Unique facial expressions/display behaviors
that signal commitment and cooperation
(e.g., eye gaze, forward leans, and touch
communicate outward attention and approach)
Increased heart rate and skin conductance Reduced heart rate and skin conductanceNegative affect patterns in the brain Positive affect patterns in the brain
→ Table 1. Distinguishing empathy and compassion.
The positive emotion that comes with
compassion is not schadenfreude but
rather affiliation—those feelings that
make us feel closer to others and
motivated to care for them.