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What Makes People Compassionate?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Jun 3rd 2014

Are you plucky?

food lineNo, I'm not likening you to a poultry variety. I'm asking if you bounce back from stressful events with strength and grace.

That's right - a group of researchers from the University of California at San Diego has defined plucky as "high mental resiliency, or one's ability to recover from tragedies such as a major illness, job loss or death of a spouse."

Not only does being plucky help you cope with life's challenges; apparently, it also increases your chances of being more compassionate toward others.

In their study, the researchers were interested in identifying what characteristics were associated with compassion, which they defined as broader than empathy. While empathy entails understanding another person's suffering, compassion encompasses a desire to reduce that person's suffering. Compassion requires empathy, but empathy doesn't always lead to compassion.

The researchers sent surveys to 1,006 adults between the ages of 50 and 99 living in San Diego County. Here are a few things the survey results revealed:

  • Women were more likely to be compassionate than men.
  • Those who had suffered a recent loss tended to be more compassionate.
  • "Pluckiness" was associated with more compassionate behavior.
  • Age did not affect the likelihood of being compassionate, but life expectancy did. For example, widows who expected to live decades after the death of a spouse tended to be more compassionate than those with shorter life expectancies.
  • Unmarried people reported higher levels of compassion than those who were married or partnered.
  • Neither income nor race impacted level of compassion, though a more diverse sample may have produced different results.
  • The more tragic their losses were, the more likely people said they were compassionate.
  • Those with large families tended to be more compassionate and less judgmental.

The researchers also noted that participants said compassion not only helps the receiver - it helps the giver too. Indeed, studies have shown that being compassionate is associated with better physical and emotional health, reduces isolation and loneliness, and generally improves quality of life.

What are your reactions to this study? Do you fit the profile of a compassionate person, or do you need to work on your pluckiness?


Mann, L. (May 21, 2014). Study: Plucky females most compassionate: Recent loss increases urge to help others. Chicago Tribune (Online Kindle edition).


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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