Emotions and social behavior

Functional theories of emotion suggest that emotions are adaptive because they help solve certain social dilemmas (DeSteno, Condon, & Dickens, in press). My colleagues and I have examined how other-oriented experiences of compassion and gratitude motivate people to behave in manners that promote long-term communal outcomes. We have demonstrated that compassion promotes the reduction of aggression (Condon & DeSteno, 2011) and gratitude promotes prosocial behavior in novel relationship contexts (Bartlett, Condon, et al., 2012).


Contemplative philosophies suggest that various forms of meditation training aim to promote virtuous outcomes such as compassion and kindness. With funding from the Mind & Life Institute, my colleagues and I have demonstrated that brief training in compassion- and mindfulness-based meditation increases prosocial responses to another’s suffering in real world situations (Condon et al., 2013). We continue to examine how meditation can promote compassionate emotional experiences and behaviors using a variety of methods, including experience sampling and peripheral psychophysiology.


Compassion offers a paradox in the study of prosocial emotion and action. Although psychologists emphasize the adaptive importance of compassion for personal and societal well-being, compassion can also evoke unpleasant feelings. The Conceptual Act Theory (Barrett, 2006; Condon, Wilson-Mendenhall, & Barrett, 2014) offers a novel paradigm for understanding compassion because it emphasizes the variety of experiences within a single emotion category, suggesting any emotion can be pleasant or unpleasant. Yet emotion categories are tied to a prototypical valence (e.g., compassion as positive), which masks that variety. In accordance with this view, we have demonstrated that people experience compassion as unpleasant after witnessing others’ suffering but pleasant after hearing heartwarming stories (Condon & Barrett, 2013). Nevertheless, their abstract beliefs about compassion were always pleasant. We continue to study compassion using this theoretical approach to gain insight on compassionate feelings and compassionate action.