Compassion is perhaps the driving force of those who enter the social working profession, or any helping profession for that matter. Compassion and empathy may be the reasons we put our time and emotional energy towards helping others when it could be easier to look away.
But what about the times that we do look away? We all have days where it’s difficult to work out of a mindset of compassion. We have all passed a stranger on a street and refused to spare a quarter, and we have all switched the television channel to avert the child sponsor commercial. Without a doubt, there is plenty of opportunity to lend a helping hand outside of dedicating your time to a helping profession.
With so much opportunity to help, why don’t we take every chance?
Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, asks the question which is the title of his TEDTalk, “Why aren’t we more compassionate?”
Goleman provides examples of people with opportunities to help and follows up with why they may have refused. One specific example is that of seminary students given the task of preaching a sermon about the Bible story of the good Samaritan. The students were intentionally delayed in their class before they were to preach their sermon so as to rush them on to the next class where they would preach the sermon. A man acting hurt was strategically placed along their path to see if they would stop and help. Goleman says:
Did it matter that they were contemplating the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer? No. Not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in or were they feeling they were late or were they absorbed in what they were going to talk about.
Goleman then goes on to assert that in situations where others need help, our focus is often not in the right direction. The seminary students were not focused on helping others and therefore were not expressing their compassion.
Goleman describes social neuroscience and how social interaction automatically makes us feel empathy. Mirror neurons ignite in the same areas of our brain as the ones in someone we are empathizing with (i.e., if someone you are emotionally supporting someone who is extremely sad, the parts of his or her brain that are igniting to feel sadness are igniting in your brain as well). When we look away, it’s easier not to feel empathy, which is why it was easy for the seminary students to keep walking.
An extreme example of ignoring empathy is relayed by Goleman. He gives an account of his interaction with a serial killer who had an incredibly high intelligence quotient (IQ). This killer was known for strangling his victims which, Goleman points out, would be an incredibly intimate act of homicide. Goleman poses the question: How could he provide such an intimate death without feeling remorse? The killer’s answer was that he turned that part of his brain off. There was no link between his IQ and his ability to empathize, meaning he would have scored low on emotional intelligence.
Check out his entire TEDTalk here.