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The Science of Love

Are there provable methods we can use to become more altruistic and compassionate? Can Buddhist compassion practices be adapted for a secular society? BARRY BOYCE reports on the growing number of scientists and researchers who are studying how to bring out the best in human nature.

In 1961, following the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a study to find out how much pain test subjects would be willing to inflict on other people at the behest of an authority figure. He was trying to ascertain whether people could perform acts that went against their conscience merely as a result of “taking orders.” When the results were published in 1963, the Milgram Experiments became instantly famous and controversial. Advertised to would-be participants as a study of memory ability, the experiment asked them to act as “teachers” who would test the memory ability of a “learner.” When the learner offered a wrong answer, the teacher was to administer electric shocks of increasing severity, up to four hundred and fifty volts. These produced screams from the learner, whom the teacher could hear but not see. If the teacher resisted applying more shocks, the experimenter verbally prodded him to do so, issuing increasingly stern commands. In reality, there were no shocks, the cries of the learner (an actor) were taped, and the commands came from a script.

Sixty-five percent of participants overcame their reluctance and administered the maximum voltage. Commenting on the results, Milgram concluded that when “asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” The experiments (which incidentally would not meet today’s standards for ethical psychological testing) looked at moral fiber and conscience in the way that most of Western psychology and neuroscience has tended to: from the point of view of dysfunction, pathology, and neurosis, with an eye perhaps to fixing what’s wrong.

Fifty years later a number of scientists and scholars are taking a new approach. They are trying to understand the nature and depth of our empathetic behavior toward other beings. A colleague of Milgram’s—the renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo—is updating the Milgram Experiments by using assessment tools to measure people’s empathy, compassion, and altruism, and then putting them in a situation requiring them to buck authority in order to prevent harm to others. The study will try to determine whether we can predict how readily someone is willing to act heroically. If the measurements work, they can be used to assess the effectiveness of training people to cultivate compassion. That’s one of the main interests of the new group funding the study: the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, known as CCARE.


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