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Measuring Compassion Through Research

By Jennifer Dobner November 19, 2014 Posted in: Power Of Compassion , Article

STANFORD, CA - Figuring out how to measure compassion's presence or absence can take many forms, from researching interactions on street corners and train stations to assessments of office workspaces.

Researcher Robert Levine took his curiosities to the streets.
A professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno, Levine has spent some 30 years studying acts of compassion by recording the responses of strangers to a person in need on the streets of 36 U.S. cities.

The findings might not be surprising.

In big cities, most people didn't stop to help a student posing as a blind person cross the street.
In small cities, however, they did.
The same was true when a person with a leg brace dropped a magazine they couldn't pick up. And in the case of a "mistakenly" dropped pen, people either ignored the writing instrument or noticed it but said nothing, while a few picked it up and kept it for themselves.

"The question becomes just how much of a generalization are these things?" Levine told those gathered at an afternoon session during Compassion Week, a series of conferences and events designed to foster conversation about compassion in health care, business and public service.

Sponsored in part by Dignity Health, Compassion Week is a joint initiative of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Charter for Compassion, and the Tenyin Gyatso Institute.

Levine's studies have also tried to measure "helpfulness" among individuals.
Those findings have produced a somewhat more complicated result: Sometimes people responding to one of Levine's tests have helped, but not in way most would consider nice.

For example, a stamped letter left lying on the ground as if "lost" was returned to Levine, with the addition of a note scribbled on the envelope that chided his carelessness and lack of responsibility, along with an expletive.

"This counts for helpfulness, because he returned the letter," Levine notes with irony that drew a laugh.

That raised a new question for Levine: Does the person offering the act of kindness have to be "nice?"

Maybe not, the researcher says.

"If I'm in trouble and I'm looking for help, perhaps I don't need a mother's care," he says. "I want somebody whose going to act and get the job done."

While Levine has been out working out of doors, Mandy O'Neill has been inside corporate offices looking for ways to measure compassion in the workplace.

An assistant professor of management at the George Mason University's School of Business, O'Neill says it's a tough challenge, despite decades of corporate rhetoric that suggest companies care.

"When you talk about creating a culture of love and compassion, what you hear is 'I don't have time for it. I'm busy,'" she says.

O'Neill has found one of the most effective means of measuring culture is by taking as assessment of personal work spaces and looking at what she called cultural artifacts: plants, family pictures, table cloths, and other items that softened the environment.

"That actually improved teamwork, morale, productivity," she says. "We were able to measure the extent to which love was going on."

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