Individual and Cultural Variation in Sympathy, Compassion, and Noticing Suffering

Feb 17, 2023 11:30 am


Dr. Birgit Koopmann-Holm
Santa Clara University


Psych. East 3834


Although people across the globe suffer, sometimes we find it difficult to respond to another person’s suffering because we might not know what would be most helpful to them in that particular situation. For instance, should we focus on the silver lining or the distress? In my talk, I will demonstrate individual and cultural differences in how people express sympathy and what people consider to be compassionate. Moreover, I will present data suggesting individual and cultural variation in the degree to which people notice others’ suffering, the first step of a compassionate response. Across these studies, we find that affective goals such as wanting to avoid feeling negative can explain these differences. Finally, I will focus on acknowledging systemic racism as one specific instance of noticing suffering. We find that wanting to avoid feeling negative makes people acknowledge systemic racism less and might be one barrier to dismantling racial inequalities. Taken together, affective goals help explain whether or not people acknowledge suffering (including racism) and how they express sympathy and conceptualize compassion. Once we notice others’ suffering and understand what compassion entails for different people in different settings, we can treat others the way *they* want to be treated.

Research Area

Social Psychology