Three Steps to Compassionate Action

Neuroscience explains why people don't always help

Riding my bike down a steep hill, my tire got caught in the sewer grate and I catapulted over the handlebars and landed with such force that it knocked the wind out of me.

Time stood still as I panicked gasping for air. Eventually, I caught my breath and looked up to see I’d landed at the feet of a group of people in business suits waiting for the bus. They were all looking very uncomfortable, averting their gazes. None of them offered to help me or even ask if I was OK. They didn’t seem to be intentionally hostile or unkind. Some were pretending not to notice me and others seemed unable to move, as if frozen in fear. But clearly there was no danger to them to offer me a hand. What happened? Why didn’t they help?

Social psychologists have explained this tendency of groups to not offer help to a person in need as the bystander effect, in which people basically stand around wondering what to do and notice no one is doing anything so they follow the norm. Individuals may also feel a diffusion of responsibility as in thinking, “Why should I help when there are so many other people here who can help?” This explains the phenomenon from an observer’s perspective. But what’s happening inside an individual who is witnessing someone in distress but doesn’t make a move to help when there is clearly no danger and very little cost?

You can probably recall experiences in your own life when you needed help and received it and other times when you didn’t. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can remember times when we offered help to others and times when we knew others needed our help but we didn’t give it.

Research in neuroscience explains compassion as a three-step process and sheds light on how compassionate responding can be disrupted by our own reactions to seeing distress in another person.


Step 1. Recognizing distress and feeling emotional resonance

If we can’t recognize or feel another’s distress, we obviously won’t be moved to help them. We typically become aware of another person’s distress by orienting toward their face. Seeing the look of distress on their face can automatically evoke the same feelings in us. So we may attempt to avoid this discomfort by simply looking away or distracting ourselves. We may dodge looking directly at a suffering person, especially their face or looking into their eyes – which convey the most emotion. This is a very common way to regulate our own emotions – we simply look away or avoid seeing whatever is causing us distress. We may be more prone to avoid the suffering of others when we ourselves are feeling stressed and anxious in the moment.


Step 2. Differentiating what’s yours and what’s theirs

If we keep our attention on a distressed person, we can start to feel distressed ourselves, which can be very uncomfortable, and for some people, it may even be confusing. If we are flooded with feelings of distress ourselves, it can be very difficult to take action to help another person. Once we engage with a person suffering enough to feel empathy or emotional resonance, it may trigger our own trauma or a sense of helplessness – and we may go into the fight-flee-freeze stress response – being unable or unwilling to move toward the suffering or to help alleviate it. In this way, we can get stuck not being able to differentiate our own feelings from those we’re witnessing in others

Step 3. Acting to alleviate distress and suffering

Compassionate action involves the ability to regulate our own negative emotions and not react via the fight-flee-freeze response in the face of suffering. In research, this type of self-regulation is indicated by greater parasympathetic activity via the vagal nerve which is measured specifically as respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and increased heart rate variability (HRV). Higher HRV is associated with a greater ability to self-soothe when stressed, and greater capacity to act compassionately toward others by facilitating engagement with the suffering (in ourselves and others), while inhibiting the distress-related tendencies to fight with or withdraw from suffering.  Increases in vagal activity slow the heart and produce calm states that encourage social engagement and bonding with others.  In addition, greater vagal activity indicates the ability to down-regulate negative emotions like distress so that one can make more accurate appraisals when witnessing distress in others and decide what action to take to help them

Some people seem just naturally more compassionate and one of the reasons is that they have better self-regulation and can manage their own distress and then turn their attention to others. But anyone can learn to respond more compassionately. Having compassion for our own distress has been found to strengthen our ability to refocus and consciously activate self-regulation systems that create feelings of safety as opposed to feelings of threat and distress. These self-soothing activities operate through the stimulation of particular types of positive emotion like contentment, safeness, and lovability that are associated with our innate motivations for caring and attachment.

There is growing evidence that meditation can increase vagal and HRV activity, which in turn increases the capacity for self-soothing that is a prerequisite for a realistic appraisal of a distressing situation and intention to take action to alleviate the suffering of others. There are a variety of meditation practices that emphasize self-compassion and emotion regulation. Since compassionate responding often involves face-to-face contact with distressed individuals, practicing self-compassion with a mirror as a meditation tool may be especially useful as described in a recent article, Compassion at the Mirror. 


Take away: By learning to manage our own negative emotions, we are able to respond more compassionately to others. So whether or not we take compassionate action may have more to do with the ability to regulate our own emotions than our moral character.  


Copyright Tara Well 2019.


Krygier, J. R., Heathers, J. A., Shahrestani, S., Abbott, M., Gross, J. J., & Kemp, A. H. (2013). Mindfulness meditation, well-being, and heart rate variability: A preliminary investigation into the impact of intensive Vipassana meditation. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 89, 305–313.

Petrocchi, N. Ottaviani, C. & Couyoumdjian, A. (2017) Compassion at the mirror: Exposure to a mirror increases the efficacy of a self-compassion manipulation in enhancing soothing positive affect and heart rate variability, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:6, 525-536. 

DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1209544

Stellar, J. E., Cohen, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2015). Affective and physiological responses to the suffering of others: Compassion and vagal activity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 572-585.

Originally published at Psychology Today