Keltner explores compassion from evolutionary view

Sept. 30, 2011, 2:10 a.m.

Dacher Keltner Ph.D., professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley and the faculty director of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, spoke Thursday night on compassion from an evolutionary, “survival-of-the-kindest” perspective.

The talk was a part of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education’s (CCARE) Meng Wu Lecture Series, which celebrates researchers’ thoughts on compassion and related fields.

Keltner explores compassion from evolutionary view
Dacher Keltner discusses the evolutionary development of human compassion. (MEHMET INONU/The Stanford Daily)

“Evolutionary thought has had a lot of trouble thinking about the deep origins of compassion and altruism,” Keltner said. While knowledge of human morphology and social behaviors has advanced, social theorists are divided on the nature of human goodness, opting for either a metaphysical or cultural construct.

Darwin first attempted to explain survival of the kindest by positing that those with a stronger sympathy trait will flourish and reproduce, thereby allowing the trait to increase in prevalence, Keltner said.

Keltner argued there must be systems driving the emergence and spread of sympathy and compassion in the gene pool. He said that four things were necessary for compassion to possess an evolutionary background: a care-giving system, a reliable indicator, a contagion process and an advantage.

It is evolutionarily important that people are able to recognize compassion so that others may detect the trait and form cooperative relationships. However, unlike many emotions such as sadness or anger, compassion lacks a universal facial signature. Instead, the universal identification for compassion lies in your voice, he said.

Laugh and people will perceive your amusement, Keltner said; this “vocal burst” is just one such sound that effectively communicates emotion. The same concept is true for compassion; say “aww” and people will identify sympathy in your voice.

Though compassion is communicated through vocal bursts, it is first spread through touch. According to Keltner, tactile contact builds trusting relationships. For example, if you pat a student on the back, he or she is twice as likely to speak out in class. In basketball, the more touch that occurs at the individual and team level, the better the team plays together and the more games they win later in the season.

“It’s incredible what anatomy we’ve been endowed with to make touch such an incredible medium of emotion and compassion,” Keltner said.

And for good reason too, because apparently it pays to be good. Keltner cited studies showing that more compassionate parenting produces healthier offspring and that compassion is the most desired trait worldwide in sexual selection.

However, the United States and many other countries are now facing a compassion crisis according to Keltner. A cultural shift has occurred in the modern generation, as today’s children are more narcissistic and materialistic than those of 30 years ago.

Keltner said that inequality and materialism constrain compassion by forming a barrier between classes and individuals.

However, he said, there is hope. Compassion can be cultivated via individual mindfulness and cultural memes.

“Compassion could improve everything — from interpersonal relationships to business to sports,” said Ellie Clougherty ’13, who attended the lecture.

“It augments every part of your life,” Maia Mosse ’13, another audience member, added.

“And you don’t have to compromise anything to be more compassionate,” Clougherty said.


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