How Personal Experience Of Adversity Influences Our Feelings Of Compassion Towards Others

by Emma Young edited by O Society September 24, 2019


Here is a photograph of a suffering child in the war-torn region of Darfur, in Sudan. Most of us feel compassion towards this child. Now imagine seeing a photo of a group of eight children in the same terrible predicament. You’d feel correspondingly more compassion towards this larger group… right?

Well, probably not. Plenty of studies demonstrate what’s known as the “numeracy bias” in compassion — people’s feelings of compassion do not tend to increase in response to greater numbers of people in distress.

This “leads people frequently to experience a disproportionate amount of compassion towards a single suffering individual relative to scores of suffering victims part of a larger tragedy,” write Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University, in a new paper, published in the journal Emotion. However, people who experienced adversity in their own lives are resistant to this bias — which gives some suggestions for how the rest of us might avoid it.

Across a series of four experiments, the researchers recruited a total of almost 700 participants, who report their own levels of past adversity (illness and injury, bereavement, exposure to disasters, and so on). For each study, the researchers discard the middle-ranking third, leaving “high-adversity” and “low-adversity” groups, who go on into the experiments proper.

In the first study, participants read a paragraph about the suffering of children in Darfur and look at pictures of either one war-stricken child, or eight. They are then asked several questions about their feelings of compassion, e.g. “How sympathetic do you feel towards the children?”

The low-adversity group consistently shows the numeracy bias, while the high-adversity group does not — this group reports significantly more compassion for multiple victims than for one. What’s more, the greater their own level of past suffering, the more compassion overall they report feeling for the children, and, as revealed in a fresh study, the more they are willing to donate to UNICEF, which in theory helps such children.

Further experiments reveals high-adversity participants have a stronger belief in their ability to actually make a difference to others who are suffering. Suspecting this underpinns the compassion profile for this group, Lim and DeStono then try a simple intervention designed to enhance low-adversity participants’ beliefs in their own efficacy.

When a fresh group of low-adversity participants are informed — based on a false test result — they are high in empathy, and high-empathy people are good at caring for others and more successful in alleviating their pain, this group’s subsequent feelings of compassion towards multiple sufferers match those of high-adversity participants. The numeracy bias vanishes.

“Surviving past adversity leads people to believe they will be effective in helping others, which allows them to up-regulate their feelings of compassion in the face of more demanding events,” the researchers conclude. They also point to a few apparent real-world examples, such as the “Cajun Navy” of boat-owners who survived the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and now go to the aid of other people affected by severe flooding.

Lim and DeSteno stress they are not arguing adversity is a good thing in and of itself. There are other ways to teach people they really can help others in need, they say.

“For example, people who volunteer to aid in disaster relief or to work with the terminally ill can expect to develop a sense their efforts make a difference to many others,” the pair writes. “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.”


Past adversity protects against the numeracy bias in compassion.

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