Geometry, Infants, & Compassion

What can we learn about compassion from geometry and infants? Researchers at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev answered that question by showing two videos to a group of 6-month-old infants. In the first video, a square figure with eyes climbed a hill to meet a round figure with eyes. They go down the hill together, their eyes filled with happiness and positive feelings. In the second video, the round figure hits and bullies the square figure until it goes down the hill alone, showing distress by crying and falling over. After seeing these two videos, the infant was given the opportunity to choose one of the figures, they chose the “bullied” square figure over 80% of the time. This suggests they felt an “empathic preference,” compassion, for the bullied figure.

Ironically, in a second experiment, the square figure met the round figure on the top of the hill and went down the hill in distress even though the round figure did NOT bully or treat the square unkindly. The square went down the hill in distress for no apparent reason in this experiment. In this case, the infants showed no preference for the square figure or the round figure. In other words, their “empathic preference” was based on context. They had compassion for the bullied figure when distress by some action, but not for the figure that exhibited distress for no apparent reason.

If 6-month-old infants showed over an 80% preference (compassion) for the bullied victim, why does it seem we don’t see compassion for the victim at least 80% of the time in the adult world? And how can we, as parents, nurture that compassion in our children? I’m not sure…the research didn’t address that question. But…perhaps we can make an educated guess about a couple possible reasons.

  • Maybe the media only reports on that smaller percentage of non-compassionate acts. Perhaps compassion is exhibited over 80% of the time, but compassion doesn’t make for good ratings. So, we witness the less than 20% of non-compassionate acts occurring in the world in the headlines, the frontpage stories, and the lead stories. If this is the case, we, as parents need to help our children see the compassion in the world. We need to intentionally point out the helpers in the current world and throughout history.
  • Perhaps parents don’t model and encourage compassion. Could it be that many parents promote a “dog eat dog” world, a world of limited resources for which we must compete? Perhaps our actions suggest that “only a few can get the prize” and nothing short of “the prize” is worth having. At best, we promote ignoring the other guy or, worse, pushing the other guy out of the way to get the limited resource or cherished prize. If this is true, we need to adjust our view of the world. We need to realize that “the prize” is not necessarily the trophy for coming out as “number one” but the glory of playing an honorable game, which at times may result in a prize. We need to nurture the understanding that resources are plentiful when we use them wisely, share them generously, and encourage one another genuinely.   

Let me share a few practical actions we can take to nurture compassion in our children.

  1. Model compassion. Our children’s compassion begins at home. They learn how to interact with the world by watching us interact with the world. Let them see you act in compassion toward others. Let them see kindness in you.
  2. “Look for the helpers” in the present world and in history. Consider not just the atrocity of slavery, but the compassion of those who supported the underground railroad. Don’t just speak of the horror of the holocaust, praise the Righteous Among the Nations as well. Rather than simply talk about various injustices in the world, “look for the helpers” and support them in word and deed. Look for acts of kindness or compassion in the world and point them out to your children.
  3. Volunteer. One way to support the “helpers” is to become one yourself. Look for opportunities to volunteer as a family. Consider ways you can reach out in kindness to those around you and involve your children in the act. They will learn the joys of compassion and it will become a lifelong style of interaction.

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