Can Compassion Be Taught?

Researchers are developing programs that promise to teach people how to be better

Julissa Treviño
Published in
5 min readDec 4, 2018


Illustration: Cathryn Virginia

ByBy now, the news cycle is familiar: The United States is using tear gas on asylum seekers. Hundreds of migrant children remain separated from their families. A professor’s office is vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti.

It’s easy to feel like we’re living in a social climate increasingly unconcerned with the suffering of others. A frequently cited 2009 study suggests that people may be getting less empathetic over time, and as politics, current affairs, and rhetoric fuel anger and polarization, it can certainly seem like we’re becoming a less compassionate society.

Can that change?

TThere are a lot of factors, including wealth, religion, and whether you experienced childhood trauma, that contribute to how we feel about others and our desire to help them. A 2018 study even suggested that genes may play a role in empathy, arguing that genetics accounts for 10 percent of individual differences in empathy.

Empathy, compassion, and altruism are often lumped together. And while they’re linked, they have different meanings. Empathy describes an emotion you feel when you observe it in another person. For instance, you might be able to feel pain when someone else is injured.

“Compassion is a more positive, other-directed emotion,” says Anne Böckler-Raettig, an assistant professor at Würzburg University’s Institute of Psychology in Germany. It’s feeling the suffering of others and the desire to help. Altruism is “the tendency to behave in a way that enhances the well-being of another person.”

Research suggests that it’s possible to train ourselves to be more compassionate. There is now an entire industry dedicated to cultivating compassion. Currently, there are five empirically supported compassion trainings, some offered by university-affiliated research centers. Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, for example, offers an eight-week training program.

The idea of compassion- and mindfulness-based trainings, which draw from psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines, is that your brain can…