The Compassion Deficit

A few months ago the New York Times published an article titled The Charitable-Giving Divide. Here are a few excerpts from it:
For decades, surveys have shown that upper-income Americans don’t give away as much of their money as they might and are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor, who are strikingly generous. A number of other studies have shown that lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans.
His study [Paul K. Piff], written with Michael W. Kraus and published online last month by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.

“Upper class” people, on the other hand, clung to values that “prioritized their own need.” And, he told me this week, “wealth seems to buffer people from attending to the needs of others.” Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients in the greater generosity of those with lower incomes. And these two traits proved to be in increasingly short supply as people moved up the income spectrum.

This compassion deficit — the inability to empathetically relate to others’ needs — is perhaps not so surprising in a society that for decades has seen the experiential gap between the well-off and the poor (and even the middle class) significantly widen.
Given all this, it’s tempting to believe that there’s something intrinsic to the rich or the poor that explains their greater or lesser generosity and empathetic connection to others (i.e., rich people get rich because they like money more and are less distracted from their goals by the relational side of life), but Piff’s research points in a different direction. Piff found that if higher-income people were instructed to imagine themselves as lower class, they became more charitable. If they were primed by, say, watching a sympathy-eliciting video, they became more helpful to others — so much so, in fact, that the difference between their behavior and that of the low-income subjects disappeared. And fascinatingly, the inverse was true as well: when lower-income people were led to think of themselves as upper class, they actually became less altruistic.
Those words, "compassion deficit", ring true with me. I think that it is so easy to shield yourself from the suffering of others and become convinced that we are not our brother's keeper. On the flip-side I can resonate with being moved by compassion to help out and to give when I see a need.. even if it is simply a TV show or a YouTube video. I don't know about you but I do not want to live with a deficit of compassion in my life.


  1. I agree ~ Break my heart with the things that break God's heart, and let me respond with generous compassion.


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