Seeing a child steal a toy from a fellow playmate. Watching a stranger cut in line at the grocery store. When we witness something unjust, our emotions often shape our behavior both toward the person wronged and the wrongdoer.
But why we help the victim in some cases or punish the transgressor in others isn’t that simple, according to researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Published in the journal PLoS ONE, a new set of studies suggests that compassion – and intentionally cultivating it through training – may lead us to do more to help the wronged than to punish the wrongdoer. Researchers found compassion may also impact the extent to which people punish the wrongdoer.
Understanding what motivates people to be altruistic can not only inform our own behaviors, it may also play a role in creating more just societal institutions, including the legal and penal systems. It can also help researchers develop better interventions to cultivate compassion.
“Any action – helping or punishing – can arise from compassion, which involves at least two components - a ‘feeling’ component of empathic concern and caring for the suffering of another, and a cognitive, motivational component of wanting to alleviate that suffering,” says lead researcher Helen Weng, a former graduate student and Center collaborator who's a current postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco. “It may seem counterintuitive that punishment behavior can arise from compassion, but if the goal is to alleviate suffering of others, this may include providing negative feedback to the wrongdoer so that they change their behavior in the future.”
These findings build upon previous work by Weng and others, which demonstrates that as little as two weeks of compassion training can result in measurable changes in the brain. These previous studies gathered fMRI imaging and measured altruistic behavior in research subjects to reach these conclusions, but did not fully separate helping and punishing behavior to learn which is most related to compassion.
To answer this question, the investigators tested whether compassion was related to helping or punishment in two studies where participants played the “Helping Game” or “Punishment Game” using real money they could keep at the end of the game.