How Can We Make The World More Compassionate?

Dec 19, 2014
Originally published on December 9, 2016 8:12 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Just A Little Nicer.

About Karen Armstrong's TED Talk

Religion scholar Karen Armstrong describes how compassion is the core principle in all world religions, in the form of the golden rule.

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion and compassion, including The Case for God, Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life, Fields of Blood, and The Great Transformation.

In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy's inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, so we covered empathy in the religious world, the evolutionary reasons for compassion. Let's get a psychologist on the case.

DANIEL GOLEMAN: OK. I'm ready.

RAZ: This is Daniel Goleman.

GOLEMAN: I'm best known to most people as the author of "Emotional Intelligence."

RAZ: He pretty much coined that phrase. It's essentially the ability to evaluate another person's emotions. And Daniel's spent his entire career thinking about empathy. And you could say it's had quite the effect on him.

GOLEMAN: You know, I don't pass people up on the street who are panhandling. I stop and give them something.

RAZ: Every time?

GOLEMAN: Pretty much every time, yeah. And you know, sometimes you can be skeptical and say, well, you know, this guy's just scamming, he's just trying to get some money for a drink. On the other hand, it's not really about what that person is going to do so much as what it evokes in us and whether we pay attention, we tune in, we empathize, we see a need and we help it.

RAZ: OK, he might seem like an exception. I mean, most people would probably just walk right by a homeless person without even looking at them. And that's what Daniel's interested in, why we aren't more compassionate. Here he is on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GOLEMAN: There was a very important study done a while ago at Princeton Theological Seminary that speaks to why it is that when all of us have so many opportunities to help, we do sometimes and we don't other times. A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given as a topic the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is did they stop to help? The more interesting question is, did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the good Samaritan? Answer - no, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. Were they feeling they were late?

RAZ: You would think that they would be the most compassionate, that they would all have stopped.

GOLEMAN: And I think divinity students would think that they would stop, too (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah, they're divinity students (laughter).

GOLEMAN: But, you know, there's two major systems in the mind. One is the system that's an awareness where we have a view of ourselves that is our ideal self, and then there's another system that runs as much of the time, or too much of the time, where we're on automatic. And factors like time pressure rule us when we're on automatic. You have to be mindful. Being mindful means paying attention to what's going on in your own stream of thought, in your own stream of feelings and around you. Mindfulness is a general way of preparing yourself to be compassionate when the opportunity arises.

RAZ: Like, what is our brain telling us to do or to be when we're behaving in a compassionate or in an empathetic way?

GOLEMAN: Well, one of the first things that the science tells us is that there are different kinds of empathy and they don't all lead to compassion. One of them is cognitive empathy. That's understanding how the other person thinks about things, taking their perspective. This helps you communicate very well with people. It doesn't make you more compassionate necessarily. You can say Bernie Madoff was probably very good at cognitive empathy, he knew how to hustle people. The second kind is emotional empathy, where you feel immediately what the other person feels. And this can help you be very close, to have chemistry with a person, it's a basis of rapport. It's necessary, but it's not sufficient.

The third kind of empathy is called empathic concern. It means I know how you feel, I know what you need, but I'm predisposed to help you if I can. It's the caring system of the brain. That's the core of empathy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GOLEMAN: There's a new field in brain science, social neuroscience, that studies the circuitry in two people's brains that activates while they interact. And the new thinking about compassion from social neuroscience is that our default wiring is to help. That is to say, if we attend to the other person, we automatically empathize, we automatically feel with them. They're these newly identified neurons, mirror neurons, that act like a neural Wi-Fi activating in our brain exactly the areas activated in theirs. We feel with automatically. And if that person is in need, if that person is suffering, we're automatically prepared to help. At least that's the argument. But then the question is why don't we? And I think this speaks to a spectrum that goes from complete self-absorption to noticing, to empathy and to compassion. And the simple fact is, if we are focused on ourselves, if we're preoccupied as we so often are throughout the day, we don't really fully notice the other.

RAZ: OK. So people are so much less compassionate when they don't speak to you face-to-face, right? When they communicate digitally, like the kinds of things people write to Sally Kohn. There's a whole generation of people growing up right now who have always communicated like that, which must worry you, right?

GOLEMAN: Absolutely. And my worry is this - the way in which humans have transferred skills in emotional intelligence and managing ourselves and in our relationships is through face-to-face interaction. Which means that the skill set is not being learned the way has been in past generations. And to the extent that we're communicating, say, by texting rather than face-to-face, we are communicating where there's no channel for the social brain. You're being deprived. You're being starved of vital information.

RAZ: I mean, the consequences of that are potentially huge.

GOLEMAN: It's an unprecedented experiment with an entire generation.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, you could imagine that it would be very hard to create a more compassionate world if people just, like, stopped communicating in the way that we've been communicating since we evolved into this form of species.

GOLEMAN: One of the more interesting experiments going on is with what are called kindness curricula. And they just help kids understand the importance of wishing the people in your life to be well, that they should be happy, healthy and so on. And it turns out that that activates the caring centers of the brain and you become more likely to be the person who does pay attention, attune, empathize and care.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GOLEMAN: Some time ago when I was working for The New York Times, it was in the '80s, I did an article on what was then a new problem in New York. It was homeless people on the streets. And I spent a couple of weeks going around with a social work agency that ministered to the homeless. What it did was to shake me out of the urban trance where, when we see - when we're passing someone who's homeless in the periphery of our vision, it stays on the periphery. We don't notice and therefore we don't act.

One day soon after that - it was a Friday at the end of the day - I was going down to the subway. It was rush-hour and thousands of people were streaming down the stairs. And all the sudden, as I was going down the stairs, I noticed that there was a man slumped to the side, shirtless, not moving, and people were just stepping over him, hundreds and hundreds of people. And because my urban trance had been somehow weakened, I found myself stopping to find out what was wrong.

The moment I stopped, half-a-dozen other people immediately ringed the same guy. And we found out that he was Hispanic, he didn't speak any English, he had no money, he'd been wandering the streets for days starving and he'd fainted from hunger. Immediately someone went to get orange juice, someone brought a hot dog, someone brought a Subway cup. This guy was back on his feet immediately. But all it took was that simple act of noticing. And so I'm optimistic.

Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Psychologist Daniel Goleman. He's writing a book right now, it's all about compassion. Watch his full talk at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Be nicer to me. Be sweeter, oh yeah. Be kinder to me, or you'll have an (unintelligible), oh no. Bring me milk and cookies. Bake me pumpkin pie...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on compassion this week.

I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Be nicer to me, be nicer to me, be nicer to me. Oh yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.