The Science of Human Compassion

Jan 11, 2010 Published under Anthropology, KIND Snacks, Life, Science and Technology

UC Berkeley has done an interesting study about the role of altruism and generosity in human evolution, stressing the importance of kindness to our survival.

UC Berkeley social scientists build case for ‘survival of the kindest’

Published: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 – 09:26 in Psychology & Sociology

Researchers at UC Berkeley are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive. In contrast to "every man for himself" interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of "Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life," and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

They call it "survival of the kindest."

"Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others," said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. "Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.

Keltner’s team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

The study, led by UC Berkeley graduate student Laura Saslow and Sarina Rodrigues of Oregon State University, found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances.

Informally known as the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing and romantic love, among other functions.

"The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene," Rodrigues said.

While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question some UC Berkeley researchers are asking is, "How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?"

One answer, according to UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer, is that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, Willer and his team gave participants each a modest amount of cash and directed them to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the "public good." The results, published in the journal American Sociological Review, showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers and wielded more influence over them.

"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated," Willer said. "But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status."

"Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish," he added.

Such results validate the findings of such "positive psychology" pioneers as Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research in the early 1990s shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction, delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism.

While much of the positive psychology being studied around the nation is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigation into how it contributes to the greater societal good.

One outcome is the campus’s Greater Good Science Center, a West Coast magnet for research on gratitude, compassion, altruism, awe and positive parenting, whose benefactors include the Metanexus Institute, Tom and Ruth Ann Hornaday and the Quality of Life Foundation.

Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center, is creator of the "Science for Raising Happy Kids" Web site, whose goal, among other things, is to assist in and promote the rearing of "emotionally literate" children. Carter translates rigorous research into practical parenting advice. She says many parents are turning away from materialistic or competitive activities, and rethinking what will bring their families true happiness and well-being.

"I’ve found that parents who start consciously cultivating gratitude and generosity in their children quickly see how much happier and more resilient their children become," said Carter, author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents" which will be in bookstores in February 2010. "What is often surprising to parents is how much happier they themselves also become."

As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.

Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body’s organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.

Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.

Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.

"Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch," Keltner said.

The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.

Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.

"This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct," Keltner said.

Source: University of California – Berkeley

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  1. Crane said:


    Interesting article. There are is lecture on this same topic on vimeo that found equally interesting. You can view it here:

    Many thanks

  2. Robert E. Cobb said:

    Subject: The Human Genome and Reverence for Life in the Age of Cosmic Genealogy

    The J. Craig Venter Institute recently announced the successful creation of a synthetic bacterium, prompting comprehensive review by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical issues – with findings and recommendations to be reported within six months to President Barack Obama. On May 27, 2010, the U. S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce held hearings entitled “Developments in Synthetic Genomics and Implications for Health and Energy.”

    “Given the importance of this issue, I request that the Commission consult with a range of constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and nonprofit organizations.” – President Barack Obama.

    Creation of synthetic bacteria in the age of cosmic genealogy on Earth has far-reaching meaning and import ranging from human genomics and reverence for life to all spectra of bioscience and biophilosophy. (In 1859, Louis Pasteur’s pivotal work in disproving spontaneous generation of life began the age of cosmic genealogy on Earth, increasingly more pronounced in modern times owing to emergent astrobiology (merging biology and astronomy) as pioneered and led by the late Sir Fred Hoyle, by Chandra Wickramasinghe, Brig Klyce, Halton C. Arp, and others.)

    “Craig Venter’s successful implantation of a digitally determined genome sequence into a bacterium has been widely reported (29 May, p 6). Now imagine a future where a successor to Venter is able to digitally reconstruct a set of the best possible sequences of human genomes and incorporate them, in pieces, into bacteria that could autonomously reproduce the sequences.

    If these bacteria were then launched into space, the fragmented genome could be reassembled on countless habitable planets in the galaxy. This would be a process similar to that outlined in the theory of directed panspermia proposed in 1973 by Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel (Icarus, vol 19, p 341).
    Carried on comets, these bacteria could travel from one planetary system to the next, where the genome could reproduce. The legacy of human life could then be thought to have been given an eternal existence in the cosmos.” – Intergalactic Legacy (New Scientist, 9 June 2010) by Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director, Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology.

    “The first message from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilisation may not emerge from a radio telescope but, instead, from a DNA sequencing machine.” – John Walker, Fourmilab Switzerland.

    “Life comes from space because life comes life.” – Brig Klyce, Astrobiology Research Trust.


    “The greatest discoveries of science have always been those that forced us to rethink our beliefs about the universe and our place in it.” – Robert L. Park, University of Maryland (in The New York Times, 7 December 1999).

    In keeping with the promise and gift of intelligent life, universal forelaws of empathy and compassion – empirical attributes of cosmic genealogy seated within the genome of humankind and all intelligent life – expressly highlight and define reference for life underlying: evolutionary panaltruism and human unity, the age of cosmic genealogy on Earth, the cosmic community of intelligent life, and intelligent life reciprocally propagated from infinity to infinity by intelligent life.

    In forelawsship on board,

    Robert E. Cobb
    Forelaws on Board

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