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The Cost of Callousness

Regulating Compassion Influences the Moral Self-Concept

  1. B. Keith Payne
  1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  1. C. Daryl Cameron, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Psychology, Davie Hall, Campus Box 3270, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3270 E-mail: dcameron{at}live.unc.edu


It has often been argued that compassion is fundamental to morality. Yet people often suppress compassion for self-interested reasons. We provide evidence that suppressing compassion is not cost free, as it creates dissonance between a person’s moral identity and his or her moral principles. We instructed separate groups of participants to regulate their compassion, regulate their feelings of distress, or freely experience emotions toward compassion-inducing images. Participants then reported how central morality was to their identities and how much they believed that moral rules should always be followed. Participants who regulated compassion—but not those who regulated distress or experienced emotions—showed a dissonance-based trade-off. If they reported higher levels of moral identity, they had a greater belief that moral rules could be broken. If they maintained their belief that moral rules should always be followed, they sacrificed their moral identity. Regulating compassion thus has a cost of its own: It forces trade-offs within a person’s moral self-concept.

Article Notes

  • The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.

  • This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship awarded to C. Daryl Cameron.

  • Received August 13, 2011.
  • Accepted October 27, 2011.
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This Article

  1. Psychological Science vol. 23 no. 3 225-229
    All Versions of this Article:
    1. current version image indicatorVersion of Record - Mar 16, 2012
    2. OnlineFirst Version of Record - Feb 24, 2012
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