February 27, 2024

IIf you believe some commentators, we are in the midst of a crisis of compassion, with a particularly brutal daily news cycle taking its toll on our reserves of sympathy. The more suffering we see, the less we care, as we mentally turn off from the pain of others. The result can even be that we struggle to feel as much concern for people close to us when they come to us for support; we end up feeling numb to any expression of emotion.

“The whole world is at risk of ‘compassion fatigue,'” Time magazine declare recently. And while this may sometimes seem like a sensible form of self-protection, the prospect of losing any sense of concern for others in the longer term would be disastrous. But is this an inevitable consequence of paying attention to the realities of the world around us? Are there ways to avoid this?

Compassion fatigue is now a well-documented phenomenon. It was first noted among psychotherapists and medical staff, who often report feeling their compassion diminish with repeated exposure to patients’ trauma. There can be no doubt that the extraordinary stress of care work puts you at high risk of burnout, and compassion fatigue can be a symptom of burnout. However, as the Time article points out, the term is now used to describe people’s apathy in many other contexts, including their reaction to the news.

The idea that passive exposure to suffering can deplete our empathy does find some support in the psychological literature. One study found that participants who watched disturbing ads from organizations like Unicef ​​were after less willing to help a cancer charity, for example. However, this research failed to control for one important factor: people’s expectations. This may have been a major oversight. According to one fascinating new study, compassion fatigue is often the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy related to our beliefs about the brain’s resources. By recognizing this effect, we can immediately increase our resilience.

The role of mindset in compassion fatigue should not be surprising. Our beliefs powerfully influence how we behave and what we are capable of. Consider willpower. Some people believe that their focus and self-control can be easily exhausted; you can use it up throughout the day. This is the “limited mindset”. Others see the exercise of willpower as inherently energizing: the more they stick to their goals and avoid temptation, the easier it is to keep going. This is the “non-limiting mindset”. Laboratory experiments and observational studies show that people with an unlimited mindset are more likely to stick to a fitness regimen after a stressful day at work, while those with a limited mindset may lapse and eat junk food in front of the TV.

Could the same kind of expectancy effect apply to our compassion for others? This was the question that psychologists Izzy Gainsburg and Julia Lee Cunningham tried to investigate in a series of carefully controlled studies.

Their first task was to develop a survey that measures the compassion mindset. They decided on the following statements, which participants had to rate according to how much they agreed with them: a) Feeling compassion for others depletes your resources, which you then need to replenish; b) After feeling genuine compassion for others, your emotional energy is exhausted; c) Feeling compassion is emotionally energizing, and after that you can immediately start feeling compassion with other people; d) Even after experiencing deep compassion, you can continue to feel compassion for others.

If you agree more with the first two statements, you have a limited compassion mindset; if you agree more with the second two, you have an unlimited one.

Gainsburg and Cunningham first asked participants to view nine photographs showing disease, war, and abused animals, and to report their feelings about each. As predicted, people with the limited mindset tended to feel that their compassion decreased over time, while those with the unlimited mindset maintained the level of empathy they started with.

To confirm their result, Gainsburg and Cunningham conducted a study of more than 1,000 people at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. These were days full of grief and exposure to daily stories of pain and suffering. Over the four-month study period, those with the limited mindset felt their compassion decreased, along with their motivation to help others. Those with the unlimited mindset saw no such change.

We can learn these mindsets early in life, but they are not set in stone. For example, Gainsburg and Cunningham’s participants listened to a podcast in which doctors described their days on a Covid-19 ward. “My compassion for my patients has carried me through this,” said one. “I almost feel like I’m a more compassionate doctor with my last patient of the day than with my first – it’s like my compassion has a life of its own, growing stronger with each patient I see.” Hearing these positive models pushed participants toward the limitless mindset, enabling them to feel more compassion for longer.

Given these findings, I can’t help but wonder if talking and worrying about compassion fatigue without considering the expectancy effect could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, knowing that much depends on your mindset, the way we consume the news can change. the better. Without turning away from disturbing events, we can make a special effort to focus our attention on the stories of the people who strive to improve the situation: the charity workers who risk their lives to bring aid into war zones, or the first responders who maintain their composure in the face of a terrorist attack. Among the daily reminders of suffering, they can help us remember that the limits to our capacity for compassion and care are often self-imposed.

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David Robson is the author of The expectancy effect: how your mindset can transform your life (Cannon Hole)..

Further reading

The keys to kindness by Claudia Hammond (Canongate, £16.99)

Man’s search for meaning by Viktor E Frankl (Rider, £14.99)

The Compassionate Spirit by Paul Gilbert (Little, Brown, £14.99)

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