Expanding the Limits of Compassion: A Motivated Emotion Regulation Account of Compassion Collapse

Project: Research project

Project Details


Compassion -- an emotion that motivates people to care about and relieve the suffering of others -- can lead to charity, cooperation, and forgiveness. Yet compassion is susceptible to a surprising bias: people typically feel more compassion for one victim than many victims. This compassion collapse is compelling scientifically, because it conflicts with how people think they would and should respond to mass suffering, and socially, because it highlights barriers to compassionate action. Why does compassion collapse occur? According to the motivated emotion regulation account developed by Daryl Cameron (University of Iowa) and colleagues, compassion collapse results from motivated choices to avoid compassion for multiple victims because of anticipated costs. For example, people might worry that attending to the suffering of many victims will be more emotionally overwhelming than that of a single victim, and therefore proactively down-regulate compassion to avoid emotional exhaustion. The proposed research will test this theoretical model of compassion collapse. A first series of studies will examine how anticipated affective costs -- i.e., the fear of being emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed by compassion -- can motivate emotion regulation processes that create compassion collapse. A second set of studies will test whether shifting these motivations can reverse compassion collapse. These results would further our understanding of the motivational influences on moral outcomes. Given that compassion collapse may influence pro-social behavior, philanthropy and policy decisions, it is important to understand why this effect occurs and how to mitigate its effects.

Previous research by this research team has shown that motivated emotion regulation contributes to compassion collapse. Building on this work, the proposed research will examine how the affective costs of compassion predict spontaneous use of emotion regulation processes, and how this in turn leads to increased compassion collapse for multiple (vs. single) victims of a crisis. These experiments will examine emotion regulation in three ways: employment of strategies to avoid or limit exposure to information about victims; use of the psychophysiological measure of respiratory sinus arrhythmia as a marker of autonomic emotion regulation; and through manipulation of the emotion regulation strategy of reappraisal. The proposed research will also test manipulations designed to increase one's motivation to feel compassion, and therefore reverse compassion collapse. This will be done by increasing the perception that compassion is healthy; decreasing the perception that compassion has a limited capacity; activating the moral self-concept; and increasing self-compassion. Together, this research can make transformative advances in the science of compassion by revealing how motivation shapes the use of emotion regulation to create compassion collapse. By testing strategies to reverse compassion collapse, this research may have implications for increasing compassion and philanthropy toward challenging social problems in the real world.

Effective start/end date8/1/162/29/20


  • National Science Foundation: $228,918.00


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