The compassion test


As someone who for various reasons (almost none of which bear critical examination) feels in need of a little compassion right now, I was drawn magnetically to this item on the BBC website. A high powered Commission has reached the conclusion that the possession of compassionate values is a vital attribute for staff providing caring services to elderly people.

This immediately raises a whole series of fascinating issues. In no particular order:

How might job candidates be tested for compassion? Good employment practice encourages adhering to strictly objective criteria in recruitment, so how would an ostensibly subjective quality like compassion be assessed?

How might we go about teaching compassion, whether in schools or colleges? Traditionalists would presumably suggest studying the lives of compassionate greats (although often figures we associate with compassion – like Florence Nightingale – turn out to be rather fierce on an interpersonal level), and also extra-curricular volunteering. Progressives, in contrast, would see the Commission’s view reinforcing an emphasis in the mainstream curriculum on the whole child and the development of emotional intelligence. I am more in the latter camp and would argue that instilling compassion is also about how people learn to treat each other in educational establishments. I am particularly impressed by the use among pupils of restorative practice (something done very impressively in the RSA Academy Tipton).

Is it right to see compassion primarily as a personal attribute?  A couple of days ago I was reporting research which suggests the rich are more selfish partly as a consequence of the social norms of the privileged. I am sure Philip Zimbardo – he of the Stanford prison experiment – would argue that compassion is primarily a function of social norms within institutions. Zimbardo famously argued ‘it’s not the rotten apple, it’s the rotten barrel’ to which presumably ‘it’s not the compassionate person, it’s the compassionate institution’ is a corollary.

As machines get cleverer and cleverer, human added value will increasingly reside in things that only we can do. One of these things – certainly for the foreseeable future and arguably forever – is feeling empathy and compassion. The Commission’s conclusion therefore reinforces a critique of the connections between attributes and rewards in the labour market. If compassion is without doubt going to be a skill in greater need (both in terms of quantity and quality ) then isn’t it about time we started finding ways of rewarding it properly?

I do hope the RSA can sometime soon have an event about compassion; what is it, what are its foundations and how can it best be fostered and rewarded.

And, by the way, if you think this blog is nonsense I know I can rely on you to tell me very gently.

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