According to Robert Wright, a science journalist and author, humans are hardwired for compassion but we are fairly selective about who we extend it to unless we use reflection. Guy Raz interviewed Wright on the TED Radio Hour. The episode titled, “Just a Little Nicer” focused on compassion and included excerpts and interviews from thinkers, Krista Tippett, Sally Kohn, Karen Armstrong, Daniel Goleman, and Robert Wright.
Wright explained that even pre-human species demonstrated compassion through a principle known as kin selection. If an animal feels compassion for and helps a close relative the act actually supports the genes underlying the compassion itself. “So from a biologists point of view, compassion is actually the genes way of helping itself.”
With natural selection there is a kind of self-serving logic at the level of the gene. But that doesn’t remove compassion’s power. On the contrary, it can make us grateful that we developed the trait naturally. Once we acknowledge our intrinsic compassion, we can learn to deploy it more widely through reflection.
We also want our generosity to be acknowledged, says Wright. It can be quite painful otherwise. Our ancestors would have understood that people seen helping others would be more likely to receive help when they needed it themselves. Biologists call this second kind of evolutionary logic, reciprocal altruism. “Compassion leads you to do good things for people who then will return the favor.”
Wright admits these concepts are not be the warm and fuzzy inspiring views of compassion we may be hoping for. But they help us understand our tendencies to extend compassion first to our family and friends, and they suggest ways we can extend it more broadly.
There is still work to be done, says Wright. Showing Compassion to others beyond our immediate circle of loved ones has been a challenge humanity has always faced.
Raz asks Wright if he is an optimist. Does he think we are becoming more compassionate as a species over time? Wright responds by saying technology has made our fates more intertwined and our brains are designed to be nicer to people connected to us. “The bad news is we seem not always good at recognizing how intertwined our fates are. But I do think we have something to build on. In principle all it should take is making it clearer to people what is in their own interest.”
Raz also interviewed Krista Tippett, a journalist and the award-winning host of the radio show, “On Being.” Tippett says she believes we are born with what she calls the “redemptive capacity to be compassionate.” She compares the personality trait to our inherent ability to learn a language. Like language acquisition, it’s best if we immerse ourselves. “We have to start practicing it around each other.”
Echoing the father of chaplaincy, Henri Nouwen, Tippett says compassion can be synonymous with presence and is “linked to practical virtues like generosity, hospitality and just being there, just showing up.”
Tippett believes the word compassion has lost some of its meaning. “Compassion is not necessarily about agreeing with somebody else. It’s not even necessarily about liking them. It is about making a choice to honor their humanity.”
Raz asked Tippett if her work as an interviewer could be considered compassionate. He asks if she thinks listening itself could be considered an act of compassion. “Listening is a hugely powerful form of attention,” she says. “It’s presence. And if you are really listening, you are genuinely curious, and you are open to be surprised and changed by what comes back at you.”