Seeing a child steal a toy from a fellow playmate. Watching a stranger cut in line at the grocery store. When we witness something unjust, our emotions often shape our behavior both toward the person wronged and the wrongdoer.
But why we help the victim in some cases or punish the transgressor in others isn’t that simple, according to researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Published in the journal PLoS ONE, a new set of studies suggests that compassion – and intentionally cultivating it through training – may lead us to do more to help the wronged than to punish the wrongdoer. Researchers found compassion may also impact the extent to which people punish the wrongdoer.
Understanding what motivates people to be altruistic can not only inform our own behaviors, it may also play a role in creating more just societal institutions, including the legal and penal systems. It can also help researchers develop better interventions to cultivate compassion.