For centuries, various religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions have taught that compassion and pride play an important role in moral and social behavior. One way in which these moral emotions may influence people is by influencing perceptions of similarity with others. That is, whereas compassion may encourage people to perceive others as being more similar to themselves, pride may encourage people to perceive others as being more different. Put another way, compassion may cause people to think of others as being more universally alike, while pride may encourage people to think more hierarchically, viewing others as being “higher” or “lower” on the totem pole.
Recently, researchers from Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley conducted a series of studies on compassion and pride to examine their potential effects on these kinds of social judgments. Compassion was defined by these researchers as a “concern for those who suffer or are vulnerable and the motivation to enhance the welfare of others.” In contrast, pride was defined as a “rank-elevating emotion centering on appraisals of strength.” In one study, level of trait compassion predicted perceived self-other similarity (toward various social groups and people in general). Perhaps more intriguing were two studies in which researchers examined the effects of compassion and pride experimentally by having participants view a particular slide show of pictures. For example, images depicting helplessness, vulnerability, and pain were used to induce compassion. Images of national and local landmarks were used to induce pride. Comparisons showed that the individuals primed for compassion viewed themselves as being more similar to others (different social groups, people who were unfamiliar, or people in general) than the people primed for pride. Given all this, the researchers speculated that compassion and pride may help to explain individual differences in a variety of social perceptions and actions related to equality, altruism, cooperation, self-perception, stereotyping, and the objectification of people.
Given the evidence here that compassion and pride are emotions that can be experimentally induced and that then later have an effect on people, I wonder about broader factors that may promote the development of compassion and pride as elements of someone’s personality. Of course, various religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions teach the value of compassion and the vice of pride. The findings from these studies provide good scientific support for the wisdom of these teachings. However, surely other psychological and social influences encourage or discourage these states. For example, I would think that parents and peers, as well as the broader values of a culture, influence the likelihood that individuals would develop compassion or pride as a stable personality trait.
Perhaps the research findings related to pride, in particular, may strike some as being counterintuitive or even countercultural. After all, pride often is viewed as a virtue that has the potential to enhance self-esteem and positive emotion, at least in our modern-day psychotherapeutic culture. However, more and more research seems to suggest many drawbacks of pride. In addition to the research reported above, other research establishes that egotistical pride, when threatened, often seems to encourage violence, for example.
In contrast, compassion seems to bring many benefits. This reminds me of the Dalai Lama’s discussion of compassion in his wise book, “The Art of Happiness.” In this book, the Dalai Lama encourages people to remember that worth and dignity do not depend on comparisons with others, but rather are intrinsic to each of us. As he says, each of us are “human being[s] within the human community. [We] share that bond.” This is something that I think all people would benefit from considering and nurturing in greater depth.