The compassion test

March 1, 2012 by
Filed under: Public policy 

As someone who for various reasons (almost none of which bear critical examination) feels in need of a little compassion right now, I was drawn magnetically to this item on the BBC website. A high powered Commission has reached the conclusion that the possession of compassionate values is a vital attribute for staff providing caring services to elderly people.

This immediately raises a whole series of fascinating issues. In no particular order:

How might job candidates be tested for compassion? Good employment practice encourages adhering to strictly objective criteria in recruitment, so how would an ostensibly subjective quality like compassion be assessed?

How might we go about teaching compassion, whether in schools or colleges? Traditionalists would presumably suggest studying the lives of compassionate greats (although often figures we associate with compassion – like Florence Nightingale – turn out to be rather fierce on an interpersonal level), and also extra-curricular volunteering. Progressives, in contrast, would see the Commission’s view reinforcing an emphasis in the mainstream curriculum on the whole child and the development of emotional intelligence. I am more in the latter camp and would argue that instilling compassion is also about how people learn to treat each other in educational establishments. I am particularly impressed by the use among pupils of restorative practice (something done very impressively in the RSA Academy Tipton).

Is it right to see compassion primarily as a personal attribute?  A couple of days ago I was reporting research which suggests the rich are more selfish partly as a consequence of the social norms of the privileged. I am sure Philip Zimbardo – he of the Stanford prison experiment – would argue that compassion is primarily a function of social norms within institutions. Zimbardo famously argued ‘it’s not the rotten apple, it’s the rotten barrel’ to which presumably ‘it’s not the compassionate person, it’s the compassionate institution’ is a corollary.

As machines get cleverer and cleverer, human added value will increasingly reside in things that only we can do. One of these things – certainly for the foreseeable future and arguably forever – is feeling empathy and compassion. The Commission’s conclusion therefore reinforces a critique of the connections between attributes and rewards in the labour market. If compassion is without doubt going to be a skill in greater need (both in terms of quantity and quality ) then isn’t it about time we started finding ways of rewarding it properly?

I do hope the RSA can sometime soon have an event about compassion; what is it, what are its foundations and how can it best be fostered and rewarded.

And, by the way, if you think this blog is nonsense I know I can rely on you to tell me very gently.



  • Marianne Doczi

    How great to see this blog. Compassion is, like empathy, kindness, collaboration, an essential part of a modern economy/society. As you say, it’s about more than the individual, it’s about a social and economic construct where such values and behaviours are valued. The human, economic and environmental costs of lack of compassion are enormous. As we continue to develop into the oxymoronic state of care-less-societies AND love-more-economies we run the risk of not having the key skills and attributes for both a society and an economy that will bring well-being and prosperity. It’s too late to teach compassion in tertiary institutions, it has to be instilled through early socialisation, in families and communities. Until we understand the value of values we won’t be able to invest in the changes we need to incorporate them once again into society, and for the first time, into our economy.

  • Tessy Britton

    This is very interesting Matthew – something I think about quite a lot. The problem I have is that the word compassion often goes hand in hand with sympathy and charity – which are admirable, helpful and important… but often fall short of making significant systemic changes to prevent.

    Not sure the phrase ‘instilling compassion’ works for me…. in schools or elsewhere. As we also have natural biological empathetic responses, feeling very viscerally another’s situation, which can work pretty strongly to help us muster the amount of determination needed to make serious changes.

    If you work with elderly people, or any other caring situation, you should of course be lovely to them at all times – good for the commissioner to recognise this ….

  • Jonathan O’Donnell-Young

    Matthew, I feel you are misrepresenting Philip Zimbardo – he does not argue against individual responsibility or accountability just that if we want more of a particular behaviour (in this case compassion) we need to create the best conditions for it to flourish.
    I think Marianne is spot on about the need for early sociaIisation. I read somewhere about an experiment which recreated the good samaritan tale in a modern day seminary. The trainee priests “walked on by” in worrying numbers – It was obviously tool late to train them in compassion!

  • Peter Roberts

    Maybe you are right that an event is needed because I am not at all sure I understand what compassion is.

    Aristotle thought sympathy required experience and one would therefore think it could never be taught in an academic sense. On the other hand I’ve thought for some time that the ‘feeling with’ that is empathy could be taught. Pity is odd. To be an object of pity isn’t very nice.

    The above three involve neurological activity. Does compassion? I guess so but I’m not sure it would make sense to call someone compassionate without them acting on it.

  • Ian Christie

    A good idea and a nice post.
    See Roman Krznaric’s work on empathy, the Roots of Empathy network of educational projects, and Karen Armstrong’s global charter of values based on compassion.

    The issue arises at the moment specifically in relation to cases of poor treatment of elderly people in hospitals and care homes, and it is clear that these are not the norm. But there is evidently a significant minority of nurses and carers who treat elderly people with impatience and contempt. Do they do the same with middle-aged and young people? It would be interesting to know if the issue arises only or especially with sick elderly people. Contempt and absence of compassion might be associated with a sense that these people are now useless and have no potential, in a way that does not apply to a ‘useless’ baby. It might be associated with disgust at loss of bodily self-control – again, in a way that would not be applied to an infant. And it might reflect a kind of disgust with ageing. The wider influences of a culture obsessed with youth, value for money and ‘performance’ are bound to have had an influence over the past 30 years on attitudes towards the weak and sickly. How education and training could draw out, challenge and transform such feelings is an important issue and it would be good if RSA could explore it.

  • Sue Beare

    Thank you for your article. This is indeed a very important value in all of humanity and there is much written about how compassion and empathy are the only ways in which lives truly touch each other, as was mentioned in another’s comment.

    Without this quality of deep feeling for others we isolate ourselves from the richest part of being alive. Some would argue the futility of feeling for others if there is no practical way to put those qualities of compassion into action and they are quite correct.

    Philosophy without humanism becomes stoicism. Religion without prayer and following the tenants of the great minds and hearts that brought the message to ‘live in mindful love’ is equally paralyzed. Especially frozen by fear of the other, rather than seeing all people as in need of compassion. Science without the context of balance in action, and thoughtful application of those generative forces becomes knowledge without creative purpose.

    Art without the self-awareness of the artist as being a part of the community locally, regionally, or globally, intentionally or unwittingly seeks only to shock and fails to add to their work the necessary component of artistic expression to illuminate, educate, and seek for a moment of change to the betterment of all persons.

    How can institutions measure the immeasurable? By the products of their work. The ingredient of compassion may be masked or missing altogether. As my Granny would say, “The proof is in the pudding.”

  • Ian Christie

    Further to Sue’s comment about immeasurability, it would be to miss the point altogether if the top management of the NHS and the care homes sector decided that ‘compassion’ needs to become yet another item in a checklist of ‘deliverables’. But one would not put it past any neoliberal bureaucracy to try this, just as managers in the health system have been known to wonder what the purpose is of hospital chaplains, whose work is so frustratingly hard to pin down in value-for-money terms. The point is to cultivate an ethos of compassion through everyday practice and conversation, and not to try to generate this from a matrix of management objectives.

  • Brian Hughes

    “Good employment practice encourages adhering to strictly objective criteria in recruitment”. One of many things that’s a little bit wrong with our world!

    Outside the natural sciences, the things one can’t easily measure objectively are often so much more interesting and/or important than the things one can.

    PS Re your need for compassion, have you tried CBT? It seemed to help me (although the problem with everything medical is that it’s impossible to tell what the outcome would otherwise have been. You can’t do a controlled trial on your own. Nothing acts faster than Anadin so next time you’ve got a headache take nothing – etc etc). Good luck.

  • Tony Dimmer

    I was particularly interested in the idea that it might be the culture of the organisation as much as the individual that could be a key influence. My work is mainly in the field of education but I also have first hand experience of the “care” and medical sectors. Forty years experience tells me that the 80/20 principle might apply here, 80% of the job is relationships and 20% professional knowledge. Where things go wrong on schools, it is more often that not to do with trust rather than knowledge of what needs to be done. Treating the patient rather than the disease is something I have learned from friends and family in the medical profession but not always something that trainee nurses have time to learn. My recent experience of the “Liverpool Pathway” at the end of life contrasts with the stories of futile interventions with the elderly which the risk averse members of the profession seem to indulge in to avoid the possibility of legal action.

  • Jules Evans

    How could you test for compassion?

    Well, think about the old honesty test employers sometimes do on new employees – they leave a tenner out and see if someone takes it.

    In the first month or so, it would be quite easy to put new carers into trying situations, and quietly see how they cope with it, and whether they treat the elderly person with respect and compassion. You could have a three month probation in which the caregiver is observed to see how they do, at the end of which there’s an assessment.

    Then after that, youd also need a whistleblower system in place, as the report says.

    By the by, Id question whether you want to call compassion a ‘skill’. The Commission report explicitly makes a difference between skills and values. Emotional intelligence is a skill, not a value. You can be very emotionally intelligent and an immoral and manipulative person. We need to be wary, Id suggest, of using this technocratic language of skills, capacities, competencies, technologies etc and see that sometimes we’re talking about moral values – compassion, kindness, honesty, integrity. A machine can acquire skills, only a human can acquire values. Management skills have their place, but again, one can be a very efficient manager and still be a not very good human being.

  • Francis

    Oh, I find this talk of taking steps to ensure carers are compassionate and assessments to check their compassion very inflammatory.
    Why did I become a nurse? Oh, was it the generous compensation package, the frequent large bonuses, the gold-plated pension, the delight in dealing with the effluvia of the human body? Was it the cushy hours, the cosy working conditions, the abundant staffing ratios?
    I think the really pertinent question here is what causes a failure in compassion in the caring professions, the caring institutions? This is complex, but I think our starting point has to be somewhere near the political value that spending on care must be pared to the minimum possible, because this means putting people on the front line in absolutely impossible situations, and that might just be one of the reasons why from time to time (because it is thankfully, miraculously, not the norm) , compassion fails.

  • junius

    The study of ‘compassion’ as a philosophical concept and how it may improve our lives as individuals and as societies within an educational curriculum has possibly more leverage than attempting to translate and apply its values to the care of the elderly. The etymological definition of ‘compassion’ from the Latin and medieval French is the emotion of pity or sympathy for others who are suffering. While, no doubt, a percentage of the elderly needing care will be suffering age related illnesses and diseases, a substantial number would not be ‘suffering’ but requiring care in a more mundane way to live their everyday lives- eg. help with preparing/ cooking meals, shopping, dressing, washing etc. The carer would benefit by receiving practical accredited training to fulfil these tasks (if not already familiar with them) rather than some deep philosophical delving into what suffering may be involved. Carers who are not fit to carry out the duty and deliberately inflict harm should be identified by regulators and weeded out.It is most unlikely that such people will acquire the attribute of compassion, which is meant to empathize with suffering, if they deliberately inflict harm (physical or psychological). In any case, why should the elderly be made guinea pigs for their reform.

    Below, a most enlightening blog on ‘compassion';

  • Samantha Earle

    As Leonard Cohen said of a deeply dystopian future “there won’t be nothing you can’t measure any more”…. the tendency to measure and quantify is to be distrusted on so many levels.

    The troubling thing about compassion, and the apparent want of it, is the space between the feeling (or cognisance) and the acting (or the realisation). This is, as Eliot would have it, where falls the shadow.

    My own feeling is that a disintegration of self, into myriad contradictory, fair-weather identities, that is the necessary result of individualised, neo-liberal societies, is what prevents the actualisation of compassion (and all other values associated with integrity). Control is evidently crucial to existence (as demonstrated in 1970s care home experiment), so… does a lack of control in other areas of life motivate people to abuse power, in the quest for elusive self-affirmation? If control, and other essential rights and freedoms were available, would compassion and other virtues be more easily practised? How can shards of self, fragments of identity be assimilated and integrated? Would such integrity (that dispels the shadow of feeling and doing) provide control/agency and self affirmation?

    Ian, I agree with your idea about the wider influences of youth, beauty, wealth etc, and I wonder, with regard to ‘performance’, is this symptomatic of an absence of a sense of intrinsic value, usurped by a cultural imperative of instrumental value?

  • Russell Webster

    My experience is that institutional culture is the key determinant of how compassionate a culture is. For instance in a caring, nurturing children’s home, new kids take on the ‘we all look after each other here” ethos. When things get out of control and aggression and violence are commonplace, even “non problematic” kids get caught up in hostile behaviour.

    I’m not sure that compassion can be taught, but it can surely be modelled, lived and learnt.

  • Michael

    I recommend this insightful and powerful short piece (in respnse to the Dignity report) on the Guardian social care blog, by an (anonymous) person who works in the area of dementia care.

  • Matthew Kalman Mezey

    I think it’s worth remembering that, broadly-speaking, any psychological tool that measures adult developmental growth will tend to be assessing a trajectory from ego-centric to ethno-centric/conventional to world-centric/post-conventional.

    Unsurprisingly, I think that world-centric is more compassionate, in many senses.

    But there are all manner of complications to this picture – eg differences between male and female ways of knowing, between socio-cognitive and socio-emotional development etc.

    By the way, I just – belatedly – posted some detailed responses from Prof Bill Torbert to your interesting criticisms (a week or two back) of research on leaders’ developmental stages and their impact on organisational transformational etc.

    You can read the comment here:

    Matthew KM

    Matthew Kalman Mezey
    Senior Networks Manager – Online & International

    Tel 020 7451 6825
    A live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity is here: (online community)

  • junius

    The general tenor of the argument so far is that ‘compassion’ is an unequivocally good thing. The ancients, such as Aristotle, had a number of caveats about it and a highly influential contemporary critic is the writer on radical psychiatry, Thomas Szasz;

  • Steve Jordan

    This is going down the road of the rather American corporate approach of wanting to own your soul, you must “believe in our values to belong in the. organisation”. Whilst I think it would be a nicer place if more people were compassionate, is it necessary to be “a compassionate person” to exhibit compassionate behaviour. Is not this denying the ability of people to hold different views from the way they choose to act? For some people compassion would involve assisted dying for others the complete opposite.

    This is about compassionate actions not internal belief.

  • Carolyn McDowall

    As an important aspect of cultural development compassion is a virtue that surely springs from the’ do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ principle. Did you know there is a ‘Charter for Compassion’ and a group calling to ‘bring the world together’ on this issue, which is seen as necessary in the path to enlightenment. Like all such movements it would have a tendency to devalue its core principles as it progresses, unless it has someone safeguarding and upholding standards by providing a way forward. Would be very interested to see ‘compassion’ as an RSA Project/Event.

  • oldandrew

    Looking for a “traditionalist” approach to teaching compassion is like looking for a vegetarian way to eat beef.

    Traditionalists believe education should be about learning, not trying to make people feel a particular way.

  • George Por

    Matthew asked a wise and liberating question: “Is it right to see compassion primarily as a personal attribute? … Zimbardo famously argued ‘it’s not the rotten apple, it’s the rotten barrel’ to which presumably ‘it’s not the compassionate person, it’s the compassionate institution’ is a corollary.”

    A wise question calls us to look at its object from a broader, more encompassing view than normally we do. A liberating question breaks our mental shackles and invites us to express freely our highest aspirations even if they are not supported by a given social context.

    Don’t we all long for living in a society, where the fullest development of all is the purpose of the whole, and vice versa? Well, maybe not all but I certainly do. Such a compassionate society would be just one notch higher in the holarchy of embedded systems than the compassionate institution that Matthew wrote about.

    When I think of compassionate institutions, I don’t think primarily organizations of any kind with a compassionate culture and lofty Mission/Values statement framed and displayed at the entrance, which nobody really cares about. Even if they do, and there are sincere efforts to embody compassionate efforts in collective behavior, organisational is culture only half of the equation.

    The other half is the systems, structures, and processes of value creation and governance. That implies going just one step further in our quest for the compassionate institution, and embodying compassion not only in the culture but also in the systems. Something like commons does.

    By “commons” I don’t mean only the old village greens. “Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The commons can also include public goods such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function (such as electricity or water delivery systems).” Wikipedia

    Can that contemporary, extended sense of the commons become an economic foundation for compassionate institutions? I think so. But how?

    James Quilligan is a globally renowned commons theorist/activist, policy analyst, and founder of the Global Commons Trust put it this way: “Modern economics has turned labour into a utility of the market and government. But the principles of the commons (people’s negotiation of their own norms and rules for the management of social and natural resources) show us how to transcend utilitarian economics by transforming the traditional division of labour. New forms of value are already being created by these commons, whether they are traditional (irrigation ditches, pastures, indigenous cultures) or emerging (intellectual property, social networks, collaborative innovation).”

  • Christer Nylander

    If you are interested in a coming empathic civilisation, please look at my website

    All the best / Christer