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Emotion. 2013 Oct;13(5):817-21. doi: 10.1037/a0033747. Epub 2013 Aug 5.

Conceptualizing and experiencing compassion.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Northeastern University.


Does compassion feel pleasant or unpleasant? Westerners tend to categorize compassion as a pleasant or positive emotion, but laboratory compassion inductions, which present another's suffering, may elicit unpleasant feelings. Across two studies, we examined whether prototypical conceptualizations of compassion (as pleasant) differ from experiences of compassion (as unpleasant). After laboratory-based neutral or compassion inductions, participants made abstract judgments about compassion relative to various emotion-related adjectives, thereby providing a prototypical conceptualization of compassion. Participants also rated their own affective states, thereby indicating experiences of compassion. Conceptualizations of compassion were pleasant across neutral and compassion inductions. After exposure to others' suffering, however, participants felt increased levels of compassion and unpleasant affect, but not pleasant affect. After neutral inductions, participants reported more pleasant than unpleasant affect, with moderate levels of compassion. Thus, prototypical conceptualizations of compassion are pleasant, but experiences of compassion can feel pleasant or unpleasant. The implications for emotion theory in general are discussed.

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