Are Humans Instinctively Compassionate?

com•pas•sion: noun \kəm-ˈpa-shən\ a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.

We reach out to those in pain, take in stray animals and dash off our checks to help strangers suffering across the globe. Humans are compassionate toward those in need. In fact, considerable scientific research suggests, we may actually be compelled to be compassionate.

“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” – Nelson Mandela

The Instinct for Compassion

That humans are instinctively compassionate is a viewpoint that has been expressed, hypothesized and tested in multiple studies over the last two decades. two african childrenSome of this research is referenced in the widely circulated article, The Compassionate Instinct, by UC Berkeley Psychology Professor Dacher Keltner. He cited different studies that showed similar neurological reactions in mothers seeing pictures of their own or others’ babies and subjects asked to think about people being harmed.

The neurological reactions occurred in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions, said Keltner, founding faculty director of the school’s Greater Good Science Center.

“This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn’t simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains,” Keltner wrote in the 2004 article.

At the Institute of HeartMath, researchers led by Dr. Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. went beyond this in the study, The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Compassion and Anger.

A group of participants, who learned HeartMath’s Freeze-Frame® Technique, were instructed to self-induce care and compassion for five minutes. Another group were instructed to freely experience any emotions they felt while watching a video of Mother Teresa, an emotion-inducement method utilized in previous research.

The results for both groups were substantial and sustained, showing an increase in participants’ immunoglobulin (IgA) levels, a reliable barometer of the body’s immune system activity and proficiency.

Genuine Compassion and its Many Rewards

man and dogWhether through their philosophies, religions, writings or family traditions, cultures past and present have extolled the virtue and reward gained by expressions of genuine compassion for all sentient beings. Again, more than being a proposition widely held in all world societies, many scientists believe and have set out to prove that compassion is biologically based.

In the Association of Psychological Science’s May/June 2013 issue of Observer, Stanford University’s Emma Seppala, Ph.D., writes: “Human suffering is often accompanied by beautiful acts of compassion by others wishing to help relieve it.”

The alleviation of suffering appeared visibly rewarding in infants – whether by them or others – during research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, Seppala wrote. She is the associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education.

“A recent study they ran indicated that infants’ pupil diameters (a measure of attention) decrease both when they help and when they see someone else helping,” Seppala said, “suggesting that they are not simply helping because helping feels rewarding.”

Looking at compassion from another perspective Seppala asked: “What led 26.5 percent (U.S. Labor Department) of Americans to volunteer in 2012?”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” –The Dalai Lama

If, as mounting evidence suggests, humans are biologically wired for compassion, that’s a good thing. Beyond the inherent joy of showing compassion to others, there are wonderful benefits to be gained by people who engage in compassionate acts.

The case made by Stony Brook University’s It’s good to be good: 2011 5th annual scientific report on health, happiness and helping others is frank in its assessment and compelling as an argument if only because of the depth of the scientific research upon which it relies.

“Happiness, health and even longevity are benefits that have been reported in more than fifty investigations using a variety of methodologies,” wrote the article’s author, Stony Brook Professor Stephen G. Post, Ph.D.“

The conclusion of this review is that when we help others, we help ourselves, with the caveat that we need balance in our lives and hands holdingshould not be overwhelmed,” said Post, head of Stony Brook’s Division of Medicine in Society and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics. “The evidence for the benefits of giving is now extremely powerful and suggests that health-care professionals might wish to recommend such activities to patients.”

Among the wealth of research Post referenced was The Nun Study correlating longevity with the positive attitudes expressed through the autobiographical writings of 678 Catholic sisters.

Another study he cited started in 1956 and tracked 427 wives and mothers for 30 years. Regardless of all sorts of conditions, including “number of children, marital status, occupation, education or social class, those women who engaged in volunteer work to help other people at least once a week lived longer and had better physical functioning,” Post said.

Read more research studies in IHM’s Research Library.

Even as research shows a biological basis, or instinct for compassion in humans, it’s easy in our fast-paced, do-it-now world to put off or get sidetracked from helping others.

Click here to learn more about many free resources, Tools for Well-Being and Self-Assessment Tools.

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Kelly S
Past Member about a year ago

no they are not

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Terry Offord
Terry Offord4 years ago

I'd like to think so as well but.......gee.....there are enough people who make me wonder. The kind where an entire culture thinks it's just fine and normal to skin animals alive; bury hundreds of birds together alive in burlap sacks before dropping them into the ground; keeping them in sweltering heat in cages at the market. Then of course there's always the hunters - the grinning idiots standing over a defenseless animal they've just slaughtered feeling so proud of themselves. Cruelty to animals occurs rampantly on a daily basis, but yes, some of us thankfully are instinctively kind.

Howard Crosse
Howard Crosse5 years ago

I would like to think that humans are compassionate, I think that we are. If this is the case then those who do not show compassion toward other living beings are clearly deviants from the norm and should be treated as such.

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobets5 years ago

Thank you.

Joel Romp
Joel R5 years ago

i agree it is human nature, or instinct, to feel compassion.

Aud Nordby
Aud nordby5 years ago


Gysele van Santen

maybe so. i read somewhere that people with the biggest hearts suffer the most.

Mrs Shakespeare
Mrs Shakespeare5 years ago

I think we are born compassionate, maybe not as much as other animals, but its a part of us.
And then we just fight it little by little because we are afraid of getting hurt or mocked or used or whatever.

Rebecca Powell
Rebecca Powell5 years ago

The more long term studies we do and share, the more apparent it becomes that we are at a threshold moment.
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