Caring is costly: People avoid the cognitive work of compassion

Julian A. Scheffer, C. Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (SciVal)


Compassion-the warm, caregiving emotion that emerges from witnessing the suffering of others-has long been considered an important moral emotion for motivating and sustaining prosocial behavior. Some suggest that compassion draws from empathic feelings to motivate prosocial behavior, whereas others try to disentangle these processes to examine their different functions for human prosociality. Many suggest that empathy, which involves sharing in others' experiences, can be biased and exhausting, whereas warm compassionate concern is more rewarding and sustainable. If compassion is indeed a warm and positive experience, then people should be motivated to seek it out when given the opportunity. Here, we ask whether people spontaneously choose to feel compassion, and whether such choices are associated with perceiving compassion as cognitively costly. Across all studies, we found that people opted to avoid compassion when given the opportunity, reported compassion to be more cognitively taxing than empathy and objective detachment, and opted to feel compassion less often to the degree they viewed compassion as cognitively costly. We also revealed two important boundary conditions: first, people were less likely to avoid compassion for close (vs. distant) others, and this choice difference was associated with viewing compassion for close others as less cognitively costly. Second, in the final study we found that with more contextually enriched and immersive pleas for help, participants preferred to escape feeling compassion, although their preference did not differ from also escaping remaining objectively detached. These results temper strong arguments that compassion is an easier route to prosocial motivation. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)172-196
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Developmental Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Caring is costly: People avoid the cognitive work of compassion'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this