Can you measure compassion?

In a new paper, researchers have proposed a scale for measuring the Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness and compassion.

Hal Atwood9 January 2018
Photo via Unsplash.

Academics from the psychology departments at three universities in South Korea have created a scale to measure loving-kindness and compassion — two of Buddhism’s four immeasurables, or brahmaviharas.

Loving-kindness (fondness or goodwill for oneself and others) and compassion (empathetic care for a person who is suffering, and motivation to help them) are brought together in the study as one quality.

For the study, published in the April issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers interviewed two monks and three priests from the Theravada tradition to create a definition of loving-kindness compassion, which they identify as being touched by someone’s suffering, wanting to help them, and wishing them happiness.

Researchers then split the scale into subsections that include self-compassion, compassionate love, social connectedness, empathy, and satisfaction with life.

During the study, 469 psychology students were asked to indicate how much they identified with each item from a scale of one (not at all true for me) to five (very true for me). From the results, the researchers deduced three overall factors of loving-kindness compassion: loving-kindness, compassion, and self-centeredness.

Hyunju Cho, one of the authors of the study, says self-centeredness is important for understanding loving-kindness compassion because it is the opposite of universality — the concept that all things are connected.

“People in competitive society want to get more things than others, like money and social status,” says Cho. “We easily have a tendency to be self-centered. Therefore, understanding self-centeredness is important to initiate the mindset of loving-kindness compassion via practicing loving-kindness and compassion meditation.”

Researchers hope the Loving-kindness Compassion Scale will help people view loving-kindness and compassion as ways to examine our connection with others.

The researchers acknowledge that the study has several limitations. Mainly, all 469 participants were based in South Korea, where there is a strong culture of interdependence, potentially affecting the participants’ view on universality and other aspects of loving-kindness compassion.

The scale aligns with a 2008 study, from Fort Lewis College, in Colorado, that suggests it is possible to measure all four immeasurables (loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and acceptance of self and others). That study concluded that practicing loving-kindness and compassion meditation can raise social connectedness and enhance the neural systems that affect empathy.

Other recent scientific studies have found that Buddhist concepts may promote compassion and that Buddhist chanting can reduce stress.

Hal Atwood

Hal Atwood

Hal is a communications and marketing strategist with a background in multimedia journalism. They have more than five years of experience in the corporate and nonprofit sectors assisting with media strategy, campaign activations, sustainability initiatives and employee engagement. By day, they develop research-based purpose strategies to help organizations achieve their growth objectives while serving the needs of their stakeholders. By night, they kickbox (occasionally and badly), enjoy the great outdoors, and brew (surprisingly okay) beer. Hal holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College, where they helped over-looked voices tell their stories across more than 10 publications. They recently moved from Nova Scotia to PEI with their beautiful partner and their very shy rescue pup.