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Sunday, December 17, 2023

Compassion Fatigue as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Believing Compassion Is Limited Increases Fatigue and Decreases Compassion

Gainsburg, I., & Lee Cunningham, J. (2023). 
Psychological science, 34(11), 1206–1219.


People's compassion responses often weaken with repeated exposure to suffering, a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue. Why is it so difficult to continue feeling compassion in response to others' suffering? We propose that people's limited-compassion mindsets-beliefs about compassion as a limited resource and a fatiguing experience-can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces compassion fatigue. Across four studies of adults sampled from university students and online participant pools in the United States, we show that there is variability in people's compassion mindsets, that these mindsets can be changed with convincing information, and that limited-compassion mindsets predict lower feelings of compassion, lower-quality social support, and more fatigue. This contributes to our understanding of factors that underlie compassion fatigue and supports the broader idea that people's beliefs about the nature of emotions affect how emotions are experienced. Together, this research contributes to developing a strategy for increasing people's capacity to feel compassion and their social support.

Here is an excerpt:

Compassion and Its (Potential) Limits

Compassion is the feeling of concern for others’ suffering and the accompanying motivation to help (Goetz et al., 2010). Like other psychological capacities (e.g., short-term memory; Cowan, 2016), there may be limits to people’s compassion capacities. Relevant to the present research, compassion can weaken in response to prolonged, repeated exposure to suffering (i.e., compassion fatigue; Figley, 1995). Compassion fatigue was conceptualized as an occupational hazard among healthcare professionals, and it is defined as “a healthcare practitioner’s diminished capacity to care as a consequence of repeated exposure to the suffering of patients, and from the knowledge of their patient’s traumatic experiences” (Cavanagh et al., 2020, p. 640) and “a state of exhaustion . . . as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress” (Figley, 1995, p. 253).

Although compassion fatigue often stems from actively caring for patients, the mere knowledge of or exposure to patients’ suffering can also cause compassion fatigue (Cavanagh et al., 2020). Thus, media scholars also theorized about compassion fatigue following people’s repeated exposure to news media depicting the suffering of distant others disconnected from the self (Kinnick et al., 1996; Moeller, 1999). Supporting this idea, one experimental, lab-based study showed that participants who saw many (vs. few) compassion-inducing videos exhibited less empathy and reduced intent to help people in need during an unrelated task (S├╝ssenbach, 2018). Although this context is different from health care, research in both contexts demonstrates the core elements of compassion fatigue: repeated exposure to suffering reduces subsequent compassion.

Why Mindsets May Influence Compassion

Although the capacity to feel sustained compassion in response to ongoing suffering may be limited, it is also possible that believing compassion is limited (i.e., having a limited mindset) contributes to compassion fatigue. In their review of limited willpower mindsets, Bernecker and Job (2019) explain that people with limited mindsets view their willpower as a “limited resource that gets depleted whenever used,” whereas those with nonlimited mindsets “reject this view and rather believe that using their willpower can even activate their mental stamina.” In the present research, people with limited mindsets may believe that feeling compassion depletes their emotional resources, requiring rest and recovery; people with nonlimited mindsets may disagree, and potentially view an initial experience of compassion as emotionally energizing, increasing their ability to feel compassion for others.

Critically, research suggests that limited mindsets can produce mindset-consistent experiences: Job and colleagues (2010) showed variability in limited versus nonlimited mindsets, the malleability of mindsets in response to information, and effects of limited mindsets on self-control and mental fatigue. Subsequent research suggests that these effects may be due to mindsets influencing people’s task-specific expectations and interpretations of mental experiences when exerting willpower (Chow et al., 2015; Francis & Job, 2018). Similarly, we propose that limited mindsets for compassion increases compassion fatigue via increased expectations of compassion fatigue in contexts eliciting ongoing compassion.