Paul Ekman’s Taxonomy of Compassion

By Paul Ekman | June 21, 2010 | 0 comments

The renowned psychologist offers a lesson in emotional intelligence.

This month, Greater Good features videos of a presentation by renowned psychologist Paul Ekman on “Darwin, Compassion, and the Dalai Lama.” In his talk, Ekman reveals the similarities between Darwin’s and the Dalai Lama’s perspectives on compassion, and he provides an overview of different forms of compassion, ranging from the most elementary to the most exceptional and heroic. Many writers group these phenomena together, explains Ekman, without realizing they’re talking about different things.

Below is a guide to understanding what these varying forms of compassion are and why they’re so important.

  • Emotion Recognition is the easiest—the sine qua non. It’s knowing how another person is feeling. Most people don’t need to be taught it, though people with Asperger’s, autism, or schizoprenia do. Realize that the torturer needs emotion recognition: to know how you feel doesn’t imply whether I’m going to try to relieve your suffering or inflict it, or just have no concern. But if I don’t know how you’re feeling, everything else just falls by the wayside.
  • Emotional Resonance is what Bill Clinton does: “I feel your pain.” I distinguish between two types of resonance: Identical Resonance is when you realize that someone is in pain and you actually physically experience that same feeling yourself. But when you say, “Oh, you poor baby! I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. What can I do to help you?”—that’s Reactive Resonance.

    Everybody loves people who resonate; resonance is crucial to our relationships with our loved ones. But if you’re like my daughter, an emergency room worker in San Francisco’s only trauma center, if you feel other people’s pain for 8 or 12 hours a day, you’ll burn out. The Dalai Lama says he feels others’ pain, but just very slightly and just for a few seconds, then it passes.

    Not everyone resonates: There’s reason to believe that people with anti-social personalities don’t resonate, but they’re able to act as if they resonate, because they know other people like it, and that allows them to manipulate others.

  • Familial Compassionis the seed of compassion, planted through the caregiver-offspring bond. It raises very interesting questions about people who were brought up without a single caregiver, or were brought up with a parent who had a very distant attachment. What is their capacity for compassion? Both the Dalai Lama and Darwin would say that they’re going to have problems—without the seed, the flower won’t grow.
  • Global Compassion was exemplified by the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. People around the world extended assistance to strangers, of different races and skin colors. Now, we know that not everybody has it—a lot of people acted, and a lot of people didn’t. How do we cultivate global compassion? I consider this one of the most crucial questions for the survival of our children and grandchildren, because the planet won’t survive without global compassion. We’ve got to try to see what we can learn from those who have it without training.
  • Sentient Compassion is when you extend feelings of compassion toward cockroaches, toward any living being. We don’t know whether people who have global compassion have sentient compassion. But my hunch is that if you’ve got sentient, you’ve got global. The Dalai Lama and Darwin agree that sentient is the highest moral virtue.
  • United States Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Smith

  • Heroic Compassionis like altruism with a risk. It has two forms: Immediate Heroic Compassionis when, without thought, you jump onto the subway tracks to rescue someone. It’s impulsive.

    Considered Heroic Compassion isn’t done impulsively; it’s done with thought, and it can be maintained for many years.

    Kristen Monroe, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, has done a study of people with heroic compassion, and here are her criteria for it: 1) you must act—not just think about how good it would be to act; 2) your goal is the welfare of the other person; 3) your action has consequences for that person; 4) there’s a good possibility your actions will diminish your own welfare—you’re putting yourself at risk; 5) and you have no anticipation of reward or recognition.

    Again, we know that some people demonstrate heroic compassion without training. How’d they get it? What can we learn from them that will allow us to help other people develop it?