Compassion has been the subject of numerous studies, many with a common theme of “numeracy bias” or “psychic numbing”. This means that while we may feel compassion towards a single person in distress, our feelings are dulled and we are less motivated to be sympathetic when there are multiple victims involved.

A new study by two psychologists at Northeastern University, however, finds that people who have experienced adversity in their own lives are more empathetic and compassionate towards multiple sufferers. Emma Young from BPS Research Digest explains.

In their paper, Past Adversity Protects Against the Numeracy Bias in Compassion, Dr Daniel Lim and Dr David DeSteno outline their series of four experiments involving about 700 participants. Each person reported their own levels of past adversity, e.g. illness and injury, bereavement, exposure to disaster, and so on. For each study, the researchers only used the “high adversity” and “low adversity” groups.

For the first experiment, participants read a paragraph about the suffering of children in Darfur and looked at images of either one war-stricken child, or eight. They were then asked several questions about their feelings of compassion, e.g. “How sympathetic do you feel towards the children?” The low-adversity group consistently showed the numeracy bias, but the high-adversity group reported significantly more compassion for multiple victims than for one. Also, the greater their own level of past suffering, the more compassion overall they reported feeling for the children.

Further experiments showed that high-adversity participants believed more strongly in their ability to actually make a difference to others who were suffering, and were more likely to donate to charities. Lim and DeStono suspected that this underpinned the compassion profile for this group, so they then tried a simple intervention designed to enhance the low-adversity participants’ belief in their own efficacy. A fresh low-adversity group was informed – based on a false test – that they had high levels of empathy. They were also told that high-empathy people are good at caring for others and are more successful in alleviating their pain. The readings of their subsequent feelings of compassion towards multiple sufferers matched those of the high-adversity group. Interestingly, there was no evidence of the numeracy bias.

The researchers conclude that survivors of past adversity believe they will be effective in helping others and this allows them to increase their sympathetic response and feelings of compassion in the face of more demanding events. They also point to a few apparent real-world examples like the “Cajun Navy” of boat owners who survived Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and now go to the aid of other flood victims. (In Australia this up-regulation of compassion is also being demonstrated in communities affected by the current drought, as well as in those so devastated by the recent bushfire and flood disasters.)

Lim and DeSteno are definitely not saying that adversity is a good thing; there are other ways to teach people that they really can help others in need. ““For example, people who volunteer to aid in disaster relief or to work with the terminally ill can be expected to develop a sense that their efforts make a difference to many others,” they write. “In so doing, this increased sense of efficacy should lead them to become better able to face and thereby upregulate their compassion to more demanding situations.”

Dr Daniel Lim and Dr David DeSteno’s paper, Past Adversity Protects Against the Numeracy Bias in Compassion, is published in the journal “Emotion”.

Emma Young is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest.