The Evolution and Cultivation of Compassion for the Dark Side: A Q&A with Paul Gilbert

May 21, 2019 in Blog

The British clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert is founder of compassion focused therapy (CFT), a system of psychotherapy that helps people develop and work with experiences of inner warmth, safeness and soothing through compassion and self-compassion. Paul suggests that compassion can provide “the sensitivity to engage with the difficult things in life, including compassion for the dark side” (you can see one of his talks here). Given my own interests in the light vs. dark side, I found Paul’s work very intriguing. I was excited to chat with him about a wide range of topics relating to compassion and what we can do make the world a more compassionate place and help people who are caught up in the dark side.

Why did antisocial behaviors evolve?

Probably the best way to define antisocial is as “actions that support one’s own self-interest at the expense of others.” Most life forms have to eat other lifeforms to survive so predation is antisocial to prey obviously. In terms of competing for resources, there are two types of competition: scramble and contest competition. In scramble there is no direct conflict (e.g., birds in a field of wheat where there is more than enough for all), but with shortage there is contest competition with desires to inhibit competitors through intimidation or injury (e.g., birds on a lawn fighting over one piece of bread). So certain forms of competition are by nature antisocial and callous. Many species– especially primates– also form groups and groups can be very hostile to other groups. Looking at the last 4,000 years of tribal violence, torture, slavery, the Roman games, the Holocaust and the wars of today, we have to say that humans have been pretty antisocial through much of our recent history; we are potentially a very nasty species.

How did prosocial behaviors evolve?

This was always a core question in evolution science and part of the answer came when the focus switched from the survival and reproduction of the individual to the genes. There are two basic reproductive strategies: the first is to produce hundreds of eggs/offspring and let them fend for themselves and only a few will survive to reproduce. The second strategy is to have fewer offspring but invest in their early life to support their survival to reproductive age. Hence any form of parental care and investment is kin altruism; acting in ways that help your genes get passed to subsequent generations. This gives rise to the evolution of attachment and caring. Caring came with evolved mechanisms for being attentive to the distress signals and needs of another (infant), and abilities to work out what to do. Over time the mechanisms that facilitate caring became recruited into other forms of social behavior. Today humans can show extraordinary caring behavior to friends and allies and also to strangers (as in the helping professions).

What distinguishes compassion from basic nonhuman caring?

Caring, like every other motive, is run on basic stimulus-response algorithms (“if A, do B”)– if predator, run or freeze; if food, dig, pick, or hunt and stalk; if a sexual signal, then engage courting routines; if infant shows distress, engage nurturing behavior.

Caring begins with some (stimulus) attentional sensitivity to the distress and needs of another (infant) with helping behavior (response). The actual definition of compassion doesn’t differ that much from this basic algorithm. So we can define compassion as a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it. At times this can require both immense courage and wisdom. In terms of a compassionate self-identity, it is “May I be helpful not harmful.” This motto can be applied not only to ourselves but to our schools, businesses, and political institutions: how to build them to be helpful not harmful.

What turns basic caring behavior into compassion is that humans have evolved a whole range of new competencies and types of consciousness and awareness that allow us to have insight and foresight, systemic thinking, an objective sense of self, and conscious intentionality. No lion can wake up and decide to go circuit training to get fit, because it can’t anticipate how it’s behavior will have an impact on tomorrow. We can. We can make decisions about overriding or inhibiting a motive or emotion or accentuating them. Given this, one way to think of compassion is that compassion is when we utilize our new brain cognitive competencies in the service of caring and supporting others. Rats and monkeys care for their infants but they can’t, as far as we know, knowingly, intentionally and consciously choose behaviors, and be aware that their caring behaviors can impact on the child’s development.

Credit: Paul Gilbert and Annwyn House (from Gilbert, P., 2018, Living like Crazy)

Is compassion an emotion or a motive?

From an evolutionary point of view compassion is a motive rooted in the evolved caregiving systems of mammals. It has been adapted for other forms of caring and helpful behavior such as alliance building, sharing, supporting, and so forth, but basically research shows that these forms of caring are rooted in the same basic physiologies that evolved with mammalian parental caring behavior.

As for any motive, the emotions and skills depend on the context. For example, a firefighter (risking their lives to save another) entering a burning house will have an emotion of anxiety and caution. Somebody fighting injustice for the rights of the poor might be experiencing anger and channeling anger into action to help people in need. Somebody consoling somebody who is bereaved may feel sad. So, the emotions, behaviors, and skills needed to behave compassionately are very dependent on context. What connects all of them however, is the attentional sensitivity and desire to address suffering, alleviate and prevent it if possible. In addition, we know that compassion and helpful behavior can be chosen because of one’s moral reasoning and self-identity even in the absence of emotion.

What’s the difference between empathy and compassion?

Here it’s important to make a distinction between motives, emotions and competencies. They are fundamentally different psychological functions. Hence, motives are the guides for behaviors – they are the life tasks, e.g., to be motivated to avoid harm, find food, reproduce, develop supportive relationships. They set the plans for living. Emotions are linked to shifts of physiological states that serve motives. So when a core motive is threatened we might experience anxiety or anger, but when it’s going well we feel positive. Competencies on the other hand are the means by which we do things; e.g., birds have wings to fly, we have legs to walk. Cognitive competencies are abilities to evaluate stimulus meaning and to calculate adaptive responses. Empathy is a competency and not a motive. We could consciously make it a motive in the sense that we can train to become more empathic but from an evolutionary point of view it evolved as a competency to support certain types of social motive/behavior.

Empathy is the ability to tune into and understand what’s happening in the mind of another (and at times our own mind). Human empathy can be used for any motive. We are more likely to build supportive relationships with others if we engage in empathic rather than non-empathic interactions. Competitors are more likely to be successful if they are empathic to their fellow competitors and can spot their weaknesses and so on. It’s how empathy is used, the motivation behind it, that is absolutely crucial. Some people can be empathic but with little caring motivation while others have caring motivation but may struggle with empathy skills.

How and why did you develop compassion focused therapy?

During the 1980s I was working with cognitive therapy for complex depressions. In this therapy you help people identify unhelpful thoughts such as “I’m a failure; I’m useless” and then to stand back and think of some more balanced, helpful alternatives such as “I have a partner who cares about me”, “I’ve been able to hold down a job”, etc. This can work well for some people but for others it didn’t change the way they felt. One day I asked a lady who had very complex depression how she actually heard those alternative thoughts in her mind, to actually speak them out as she experienced them. I was shocked to discover that she spoke them out in a very aggressively hostile way: a sort of “come on you have a partner who cares about you and you have held down a good job, for goodness sake look at the evidence, stupid!”

So I suddenly realized that emotional tone and texture of alternative thinking was as important as the content. I invited her to create a compassionate motivation for her alternative thinking and focus on generating a genuine, caring supportive tone to her thoughts. Her immediate response was to refuse to do it because she felt that was weak, and unhelpful, that compassion was an indulgence and “too soft.” Later when she tried to be compassionate, she became overwhelmed with sadness for the loneliness of her early life. Stimulating compassion in the client can actually open up difficult memories of past failures of compassion.

So compassion focused therapy began quite simply really in checking on the emotional tone of people’s thoughts and helping them generate genuine empathic, compassion intention and feeling as opposed to a hostile ones. Over the years this developed into ways of developing the compassionate mind and self that can then interact with more hostile aspects of oneself.

See here for a short five minute video that gives insight into how we developed the compassionate mind approach to help with people with difficult inner voices. Today there is a large research program on what happens in our brains when we create compassionate mental states.

What are some blocks and resistances to compassion?

It is useful to think about the direction of compassion. Just as we can have anger for others, others can have anger for us, and we can be angry with ourselves. Same for compassion. We can have compassion for others, we can experience the compassion from others, and we can have compassion for ourselves. Any exploration of the facilitators and inhibitors needs to identify which flow is under consideration.

Compassion in helping others can be costly, and typically research in evolutionary analysis suggests that it’s easier for us to be compassionate to kin and friends than to strangers, easier to be compassionate to people we like than those we don’t, easier to have compassion for people who share our values than those who don’t, etc. In other words, the algorithms for caring and compassion are making calculations about whether to express this behavior or not. However, it is also possible to use our new brain competencies to override these boundaries and extend compassion even to people we don’t like.

Basically, fears relate to wanting to be compassionate but frightened of the consequences such as being overwhelmed by difficult emotions. Blocks are when we want to but don’t have an opportunity to or are not sure what to do. For example, when clinical staff don’t have the time they want to give to their patients because of bureaucracies they can feel quite distressed. This is not a fear nor a resistance, this is a block. Resistance is when we are not frightened of it, and we could do it, but we see it as too costly. For example, we don’t want to pay our taxes to support poorer or disadvantaged people or want immigrants in our society.

Do different compassion trainings have different physiological effects?

Yes they do, and there is now work showing that mindfulness training, empathy training, and compassion training produce different neurophysiological effects. However, ideally, one doesn’t want to be a one club golfer, and all of these trainings can be very helpful to improve compassion for self and others. The interesting question is the degree to which training in one has ripple effects on to another. For example, does compassion training also improve empathy and mindfulness? Does just mindfulness training improve compassion and empathy? It’s early days but the preliminary evidence suggests maybe a little bit but not hugely. If you want to train compassion then it’s probably best to train in compassion, and if you want to develop mindfulness it is probably best to train people in mindfulness. Ideally we would do it all.

Is compassion training possible for narcissistic and psychopathic individuals?

This is a great question that nobody really knows the answer to because there are no studies. Also, narcissism is a highly heterogeneous category and we probably need to focus on specific aspects such as entitlement or grandiosity. We have some evidence that narcissists are very fearful of inferiority and being controlled by others. We are about to engage in a study in nonclinical populations of what compassion training would look like for this group of people.

The harmful aspects of narcissism tend to be associated with self-focused individuals who are competitive and have very little awareness or concern for the harm they may do to others in the pursuit of their self-gratification. While this is a category of personality it’s also the case that all of us can enter into these states from time to time.

One view is that if you help them to feel safer in the world, and direct their attention to empathic awareness and the consequences of their behavior, that might then allow them to be more compassion orientated. There is a link between how safe-threatened people feel in their social worlds and being open to compassion, but it’s very early days so we will have to see how it goes.

What’s the difference between antisocial and prosocial leadership styles?

Prosocial leaders are primarily concerned with the development of the team, the support of the team and the individuals within it, and leading the team by building cooperative relationships and providing guidance, support and so forth. Antisocial leaders mostly see the teams as a means to an ends. They have little interest in the development of team members unless it benefits them. When they are in control of companies they have very little interest in the harm their company may doing in terms of ecological damage or messing up the financial systems, or the working conditions of the staff. They can be ruthless, harsh and even bullying of their subordinates but very ingratiating and charming up rank and to their own bosses. Some researchers focus on the fact that with increasing power, leaders can suffer from what is called hubris and get lost in the sense of their own self-importance and control (www.daedalustrust.com)

Why do some leaders strive so hard to avoid inferiority?

Social competition is of course a core driver of evolution. Our research suggests that the main reasons people are fearful of inferiority is what they perceive as the consequences of it, such as missing out opportunities, or being rejected, forgotten, marginalized, or even shamed. Sometimes these individuals come from backgrounds where they had to compete for attention and experienced rejections or sense of shame over failure.

What offsets fear of inferiority and fear of failure is when we create cooperative, friendly and caring environments and then it becomes more important to develop close mutually supportive relationships rather than just constantly climbing higher up the ranks. Keep in mind too that some people can be extremely competitive but they are very respectful of those they are competing against as opposed to contemptuous and harmful.

How does the quality of prosocial leaders depend on the context?

A lot depends upon how people get to become leaders. Historically we know that dominant aggressive males have simply won conflicts with their rivals, gone to war with them, or had them murdered or locked up. Leadership can also operate through family lines, not just kings and queens but also family owned companies and so forth. When leaders are “chosen” as in democracy, however, much depends upon what leaders are able to appeal to in those who might choose them.

When prosocial leaders promote the compassionate values of caring and sharing there will always be others who focus on issues of external threat, the need to control one’s own resources and be allowed to accumulate, and the need for strong defensive action. After the war, prosocial politics were in the ascendancy with the desire to rebuild our societies, a vision to build a better, fairer world with healthcare systems for all, better education, transport and so on. Significant social change took place in the first 20 years after the war.

However, as competitive economics has intensified and become more and more self-focused, competitive urgency and anxiety has been generated within our schools and working environments. We are working longer hours, feel frustrated, and more anxious about the future than 40 years ago. This is increasingly recognized and there are now movements around the world addressing the issue of how to introduce compassion into politics (see https://www.compassioninpolitics.com/).

One of the core themes of compassion in politics is to agree that policies should not be adopted that clearly and knowingly will harm the less well off and more disadvantaged sections of society and to genuinely tackle the serious problems of humanity from social and economic inequalities through to our serious ecological challenges.

Does compassion need love?

Basically it depends what you mean by love. If we work with business people or leaders and talk about “love” you will see the eyes turn to the ceiling. The problem is that the word “love” has many different meanings in different languages and traditions. For example, in Buddhism there’s focus on “benevolent wish”, which was translated into loving wish. In the West, love and loving means “liking”, “wanting to be with, and “valuing”. Dictionary definitions of love nearly always include affection, for example.

Compassion doesn’t require any of that. We do not need to love the people that we seek to help or prevent their suffering. The firefighter rescuing the family and the medical worker risking contracting infectious disease do not need to “love” those they are helping. In fact, if we only relied on feelings of love (in the Western sense of the word), compassion would be quite narrow in who we extended it to.

When we see compassion not as love or liking or wanting to be close but as a (courageous) motivation to address suffering and the prevention of suffering we greatly expand its focus and social relevance. For example, we recognize that compassionate prevention also involves an appropriate set of laws and agreed upon regulations for our behavior. In society at large this involves a well funded, caring legal and police service that acts as protecting agencies.

However, politicians should not use such services to violently squash political and social discord which unfortunately has frequently happened. So just as doctors and psychologists are not permitted by their profession to engage in torture, one day (one hopes) these professions will address the difficult question about how legal systems and police forces should be used compassionately and not as aggressive agents of governments. Correctly understood compassion is the motivation that can change the world because not only can we have empathy for the suffering around us but we can see the logical beneficial consequences if all of us, and our institutions, adopted the motto of working “to be helpful not harmful.”

The roots of compassion stretch back into the distant time of the mammalian caring behavior. We have brains built for it. However, compassion is one of a number of motivational potentials that include competitive self-interest– the desire to accumulate and improve– which unregulated, leads to greed and tribalism. Compassion is a courageous stance against the dark side of our minds. It is to live to be helpful not harmful and paying attention to how easy it is to be unintentionally harmful to ourselves and others.

A couple of recent books that might be of interest:

Living Like Crazy

The Compassionate Mind

Mindful Compassion

Comments are closed.