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Compassion and Altruism Can Be Learned Skills, According to Study

Though compassion and altruism have been previously considered ingrained traits that we are born with, researchers have found that we can actually be taught to behave more altruistically.

"Our findings supper the possibility that compassion and altruism can be viewed as trainable skills rather than stable traits," the research team wrote in journal Psychological Science.

Their study mainly focused on the results of taking a class about compassion. They found that those who took the course had increased engagement of certain neural systems related to altruistic behavior.

The experiment consisted of 41 people who took a two-week training program requiring them to follow guided audio instructions for 30 minutes a day.

Half of the participants received "compassion training" where they "practiced cultivating feelings of compassion for different targets (a loved one, the self, a stranger, and a difficult person)."

The rest of them received "reappraisal training" where they "practiced reinterpreting personally stressful events" and had a goal of lessening their negative emotional reaction.

Researchers scanned the brains of the participants at the beginning and end of their class as they showed them a series of images. Most of the images featured people suffering, like burn victims and crying children.

Then, at the end, the participants took part in an Internet "redistribution game" where they witnessed unfair behavior and had an opportunity to rectify it.

They watched a clip of a person who had $10 only give $1 to a victim with no money. They then were told they could spend any portion of their own $5 limit to convince the person to double the amount they gave to the person with no money.

Those who underwent compassion training spent twice as much of their own money to fix unfairness compared to those who had received emotional reappraisal training. 

"This demonstrates that purely mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim," researchers wrote.

"If the signal of other people's suffering is indeed increased by compassion training, this compels them to approach rather than avoid suffering, in order to engage in pro-social behavior."

They also found an unexpected incidence in their studies. They discovered that those who received emotional reappraisal training experienced greater changes in regions of the brain linked to less willingness to give money.

The researchers believe this is because that group was trained to reduce personal stress and negative emotions, leading many to ignore or dismiss a problem presented to them.

Other research also indicated that compassion-oriented meditation is able to produce changes in the brain related to altruism.

Sources: Salon, Psych Central


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