Is Compassion an Emotion?

Is compassion an emotion?
The first natural response for the most if us would probably be; Yes of course it! But is it really an emotion?  To be able to discuss this question we must first know what Emotions are.  Emotions are, according to Paul Ekman (2003) something that is universal, they are the same no matter where you go or who you talk to. Saying that a Lecturer of Bangor University, the president of the United States of America, a student from Sweden and the native Indian have the exact same way of showing fear, anger, happiness, sadness, contempt and disgust…and pleasure.

Same facial expression of emotion on four different people, in four different contexts. ( )

These basic emotions are not learned in any way, they are innate, and they are all shown in our face. A study that shows this exceptionally well is Psychology Professor David Matsumotos (San Francisco State University) study where he compared blind and sighted judo athletes. The results showed that blind and sighted individuals use the same facial expressions He analyzed 4’800 pictures of athletes from 23 countries, from 2004 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games. (unknow. (2008). Facial expressions of emotion are innate, not learned, says new study) This paragraph is more of a detour from my main topic, supporting the theory that facial expressions of emotion are universal and is not something we learn from each other.

Blind/ sighted comparison. ( )

Now that we think us knowing that Emotions are universal and that they are innate, what about compassion? There is a difference between the compassion a mother feels towards her newborn child, the one we feel towards friends and colleges and the one we feel towards a complete stranger, says Paul Ekman in an interview at Lund’s University, Sweden 2011-05-27. And a mother’s compassion is the one closest to fit Ekman’s criteria for being an emotion because it is stronger and long-lived compared to the compassion we feel for the ones who dies in the tsunami in Thailand. Some people can see pictures of suffering people in a distant country and become to touch that they devote the rest of their life to help them, but they are a minority, says Paul Ekman during his lecture at Lund’s university.

Own thoughts.

So why is it that some people devote their life to save others, whilst some just don’t give a damn about others? Some people have absolutely no compassion at all, we call them psychopaths. Emotions are something we feel and respond to, the same way over and over, and we show it, even if the think we don’t.  Compassion is varying from time to time, sometimes we have it, and sometimes we don’t.  Compassion can also be trained away, if it couldn’t be – How would you explain the human habit of killing each other off? Without compassion (or the risk of going to jail) would we even hesitate to commit an act of murder?

I think that compassion is something we learn from our parents, friends and neighbors. Just as we learn how to separate Right from Wrong – Ethics. We are not born with the knowledge about Ethics. If you were to say that Compassion is with us from birth, you are in a way saying that the human is born with an innate goodness. Which I don’t think is the case, we are as easy to affect and easy to predict. Hell, even what we think is attractive can be calculated by a computer – The golden face ratio.

Hopefully you have Compassion enough to comment 🙂




13 comments on “Is Compassion an Emotion?

  1. psuf10 says:

    Hey MrNorthernStorm. Very interesting blog. Your referencing was absolutely superb well documented and from a wide range of sources. However I think it might be a good idea trying to start learning to reference in accordance with the APA’s rules just for practice.

    Well to answer one of your questions what causes people to have no emotions is a malfunction with the mirror neurons in the brain. Their nickname is”monkey see, monkey do” they allow humans to respond properly with people, e.g. facial expressions. This is thought to be one of the causes of Autism, even if it isn’t Autistic people are unable to read facial expressions and thus don’t often understand emotion. In a similar way psychopaths are believed to have the same neurological deficiency due to they are unable to synthesize or read emotions. For more reading on motor neurons

    Also I disagree with the idea that compassion you are not born with it. I believe as humans we are born with what we would call compassion (the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnection and humanism) this can be see as the attachment babies gain for there mother and father. However in most things this is most likely nothing to do with actual compassion. It’s to do with the evolution of the human race, Babies do not leave their mother and father due to they supply everything for the baby until it is old enough to fend for itself. However when they get older they are able to turn off there compassion to get on with life and survive which is the basic drive for all humans. What are your thoughts on that?

  2. My refrencing could be better, yet i dont know what my faulties are ( if you can point out what i did wrong, please let me know ) I gave it a try, since its as you say – Me have to learn how to do it.
    Thanks for the link!..yea i really dont know what else to say! Haha
    Having the Capacaty of empathy and the abillity to have Compassion, and acctalluy Have it are two different things. I did this refering to what Paul Ekman considers as Emotions, i.e You’re born with it. Saying that Emotions is something we always show in a given situation and always respond to. Compassion does not fill that criteria! Some give money to homeless people, some don’t. What is telling these people – Not to give him/her money? Their compassion for them, just isn’t there, or not strong enough. Compasson can be altered, switched On and Off.
    To be fair, you mention the compassion between mother and child, as mentioned above – This is the ‘one compassion’ that is closest of being an Emotion. But you are rght, this is also turned off eventually ( not completely though, unless you suffer from PAS (, october, (2011) ), its called Growing Up 😉

    – MrNorthernstorm

    • psuf10 says:

      I now can see where your coming from on all fronts except 1, the last sentence which i think is wrong. The compassion between mother child does not lessen when you grow up i think it changes it become more into a mutual respect but the compassion is still there. However I really like your ideas in general. By the way I was wondering do you think that emotion/ compassion can be created between two people?

  3. lealeason says:

    Hi, you have got a really interesting blog and I loved your topic! Anyway I am not sure if I do agree with your conclusion since the topic is well discussed and there are may arguments against it.

    To answer this question, I tried to focus on the question WHAT makes us feel compassion and what do we feel if we do not feel compassion?

    1.To feel compassion, we have to adapt the person´s situation and imagine how he feels, even if this happens subconsciously. Then we consider how much control the person concerned has about his/her situation and if he or she could change the situation.If not, we tend to feel compassion. If yes..
    2. … we tend to feel anger ( . I am sorry, couldn´t find a link in English)

    I think the reason that we don’t feel compassion when we are born is not that we do not know what compassion is, but we have to learn what situations cause pain or fear (…) and that we are not the only feeling beings of the world. As soon as we do, we can feel compassion, or anger. This means that we always have the potential to feel compassion, it is universal, we only have to learn how to release it.

    I agree with Arthur Schoppenhauer that compassion is the balance wait to egoism and the basement of morality (

  4. We are supposed to present our findings from different angles and not being biased when commenting and writing our blogs, but, I’m pretty one-sided here! xD
    “…but we have to learn what situations cause pain or fear(…)”
    -lealeason (October 17,(2011)
    For being a ‘True Emotion* you dont have to learn anything, emotions are triggered reactions from the brain. The “Fight or flight” reflex (I’m not sure if it’s a reflex, but that’s what I’m going to call it, it’s a response however.) You feel Anger or Fear and your body is preparing itself to either Fight your way out, or make a run it. You don’t have to learn what situations are supposed to trigger Anger, it’s just there.
    If you see starving children, you feel sadness; it is not compassion that you feel. You may think its compassion but it’s really sadness. From there your brain can make the conclusion that you feel sad for them, and now we can call it Compassion, and therefor it’s not basic emotion. Fear, Anger, Happiness, Sadness, Contempt and Disgust are the 6 basic emotions, and from them we can develop other emotions, such as jealousy, hatred (No, Hate is not a basic emotion, its developed from Disgust/contempt)
    Wish i could read German because i support the theory that when we know that someone can change their situation, but won’t, we feel Anger! I know this out of personal experience ;D

    Paul Ekman (2007). Emotions revealed. 2nd ed. New york: Holt.

    • lealeason says:

      Yes, I understood your definition. I know what you mean when you say that we don´t have to learn Anger. I think you do not have to learn about compassion either. The potential to feel compassion is always there, but there is nothing to cause it till you understand more about the world. I think it is as if there would be just no reason to feel fear in the three years of your life, but that does not mean that you can´t be scared and have to learn what fear is.

  5. ajkayaker says:

    I would agree that the current opinion is that major emotions are identified by a universal facial expression, but as you have already distinguished, this just makes them basic, or true emotions.
    As you say hate is formed from the interaction of some of the basic emotions. Does this mean it is not an emotion, or just a secondary emotion? The idea that compassion isn’t an emotion denies the universal component of it. We say that others who lack emotional, and/or compassionate capacity are damaged, or sociopaths. Does that not put compassion on a par with emotion?
    If the question is whether it is a basic emotion, the answer is no, as demonstrated in many studies. but as to whether it isn’t a compound or mixed emotion, a development, is another question entirely, and could possibly need further research.

  6. I liked the cat 🙂 I think it would have been nice if you had defined compassion at the start of the blog. I searched it and about 12 different definitions can up, but thats a small quibble. I found the stuff about blind/sighted athletes really interesting. I was wondering if the bystander effect could be applied to this? Why does compassion not overule this? If someone who is very compassionate like the example you gave of ‘seeing photos from a foreign country etc.’ would the bystander effect still affect those people? In the case of Kitty Genovese which triggered research into this theory, she was a girl that was well liked by her neighbourhood, but they did nothing to stop it.
    I was wondering if compassion was learnt during the attachment process. In Bowlby’s 44 thieves study, he concluded that maternal deprivation resulted in affectionless psychopathy. what do you think?

  7. psuf67 says:

    A very interesting topic to discuss. I didn’t really have an opinion at all before I read this but now that I have, and the comments as well, I think I’m going to draw to the conclusion that compassion is a learned response as well, unlike emotions. As mentionned, compassion seems to be able to be turned on and off, whereas emotions are repressed when not expressed.

  8. zydralix says:

    Emotions the Bane of humanity or are they? Rhetorical questions are fun, anyways Tim great choice in topic, compassion is quite a strange emotion indeed, you definetly learn it somehow, but there is also a draw back you can get overly compassionate for certain people which sometimes leads it to be uncomfortable for that person, but in the end Compassion is quite a useful emotion as it allows us to open up to specific people and allows you to actually want to listen and help people, i loved the Smiling cat at the end by the way!

    Great Job Tim, More Please!

  9. Is Aniouxness an emotion? Is Compassion an emotion? Is Love an emotion? Is hunger an emotion? Jealosy, panic, hatered, horniness, are these emotions? Yes, yes they are. Because we feel it, therefore they must be emotions. This is partly being Deductive, I’m sure we all know the meaning of this after Fay Shorts lecture. But are they basic emotions? No, they are all formed/ developed from the basic emotions that have been mentioned before.
    Now, when most of us seems to agree, i will present to you a journal,written by Marha Nussbaum (2009),that states that Compassion is the Basic Social Emotion. She begins the journal with the epos about Philoctetes ( If you know your greek myths, you’ve heard of him, if not, google him!) And how his company leaves him behind on a island, and 10 years later go back for him- Now, the soldiers acctally feel sorry for him, and refuses to take him back to war, just because their leaders says so. Her point is: The soilders feel sorry for a man, they have never met = Pity, Sympathy, Compassion.

    Compassion may be the Basic SOCIAL emotion, that enables us to communicate with other people, but that does not make it a basic emotion that fits Emans critera for being an emotion.

    Here is Martha Nussbaums Journal ( )

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  11. rofina says:

    hello, i am writing to you for single question. is that have some theories (except paul ekman) says that compassion is one of emotion type, if it uses psychology approach. thanks a lot.. the answer is very necessary for my thesis now.
    best regard

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