How Do We Create a More Compassionate World?

New research shows the importance of authenticity in fostering compassion.

by: Stephen Joseph Ph.D.

Today’s world seems short of compassion. When there are racially motivated murders, violence on the streets between people of different political views, and a culture of social media that promotes divisive messages, it seems clear that compassion for each other is sadly lacking in many instances.

How do we create a more compassionate world? This is an important question for social psychologists. It might be expected that compassion for others starts with compassion for ourselves.

This was examined in a recent study by Aydan Bayır-Toper at the University of Nottingham who tested the association between self-compassion and compassion for others in 530 participants. While it was found that there was an association between self-compassion and compassion for others, the effect was not strong. There is no guarantee that people who are self-compassionate are more compassionate for others.  This goes against what might be expected, particularly given how popular the topic of compassion has become in recent years, and how much it has been promoted as a tool for therapy.

However, while many researchers have found personal benefits for self-compassion, it has also been criticized as self-indulgence, self-absorption, or self-orientation. This new study would seem to lend some support to these criticisms. The interesting twist to this study, however, was to speculate that the association between self-compassion and compassion for others, would be stronger for people who are more authentic.

Being true to yourself seems to be very important. It is such an important quality to have in life, to be able to know you are, take responsibility for your choices in life, and be able to stand your ground for what you believe in. But being authentic is much more than just being for yourself and doing things for your own benefit. Humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers have long understood authenticity as a within-person factor that reveals the socially constructive aspects of human nature. That is, the more authentic a person is, the more a person will exhibit what Rogers believed were the essential positive and social psychological characteristics of human beings, as opposed to the distorted and destructive, and often selfish tendencies often exhibited by people that are understood to arise from inauthenticity. The research went on to demonstrate that it was the presence of authenticity in those who had higher levels of self-compassion that made the difference. Highly authentic individuals who were also more self-compassionate showed the greatest kindness towards other people, were more mindful about others, and were more aware of the suffering of others. The results seem to provide an answer to what has become a perplexing question for social psychologists. It may be that in trying to cultivate a more compassionate world, we need to start with ourselves and search for our own inner authenticity.  Showing a lack of compassion for others seems to hint at a person’s inauthenticity, and that they are somehow disconnected from themselves and their ability to be fully functioning and psychologically mature human beings.  On the other hand, when we are authentic, it seems we are at our best as human beings—not just for ourselves, but for the greater good.

References Bayır-Toper, A., Sellman, E., & Joseph, S. (2020). Being yourself for the ‘greater good’: An empirical investigation of the moderation effect of authenticity. Current Psychology. First online publication Joseph, S. (2016). Authentic. How to be yourself and why it matters. Piatkus/Little, Brown. London.

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