We are mostly compassionate. Yet we think that *others* are mostly selfish. Shouldn't we fix this?

graphics from  IDM Insight Innovation  blog

graphics from IDM Insight Innovation blog

Here's an extraordinary piece of research on compassion and selfishness. It's been done by Common Cause, the organisation that explores and maps what our underlying values are in the UK. Their aim is to establish a common ground under our contemporary divisions, so we can collectively address climate change, social inequality and our poor democracy. 

So they did a survey a few years ago, to test two overall values-sets - gathered under the title of "compassionate" and "selfish". They caveat the results by saying we all possess a mix of both - but just in different strengths. Here's how they define them

Compassionate values include: ‘broadmindedness’, ‘a world of beauty’, ‘a world at peace’, ‘equality’, ‘protecting the environment’, ‘social justice’, ‘helpfulness’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘honesty’ and ‘responsibility’. Values in this group are associated with greater concern about social and environmental issues, and greater motivation to engage in various forms of civic action. These are known to academics as ‘self- transcendence’ values and encompass some of the ‘intrinsic’ values.

Selfish values include: values of ‘wealth’, ‘social recognition’, ‘social status’ and ‘prestige’, ‘control or dominance over people’, ‘authority’, ‘conformity’, ‘preserving public image’, ‘popularity’, ‘influence’ and ‘ambition’. Selfish values are associated with lower concern about social and environmental issues, and lower motivation to engage in various forms of civic action. These are known to academics as ‘self-enhancement’ values and they are similar to ‘extrinsic’ values.

With Ipsos-Mori, the poll company, Common Cause went out to test these values with a representative sample of the UK population. (They deployed methods to screen out whether people were just displaying virtue in their answers). The answers were striking:

74% of respondents place greater importance on compassionate values than selfish values. We find this to be the case irrespective of age, gender, region, or political persuasion. We can be confident that this result doesn’t arise from respondents seeking to cast themselves in a better light by downplaying the importance they attach to selfish values. We were able to test for such bias.

Yet when they asked about what values other people held:

77% of respondents believed that their fellow citizens hold selfish values to be more important, and compassionate values to be less important, than is actually the casePeople who hold this inaccurate belief about other people’s values feel significantly less positive about getting involved – joining meetings, voting, volunteering. These people also report greater social alienation. They report feeling less responsible for their communities, and they are less likely to feel that they fit in with wider society – relative to citizens who hold more accurate perceptions of a typical British person’s values.

Why do we so highly rate ourselves, and so poorly rate others, on a compassionate level? What can explain the gap? Common Cause identify some usual culprits - the media, but also other public institutions (like, say, higher education), who have tended in the last few decades to justify their activities within a competitive, status-oriented paradigm (rather than, say, for the public or social good). 


So in a range of engagements - one with the city-region of Manchester (PDF) and one with the arts/culture and museums sector (PDF) - Common Cause have tried to actually get organisations to point out this anomaly to their audiences and users. "Do you know that most people believe they are compassionate, but they think everyone else is mostly selfish? What do you think of that?"

This fact itself, when clearly communicated, becomes an opportunity for citizens to value their own compassionate messages and actions more. It also gives public and civic agencies the confidence to promote compassionate values, knowing that there's a strong basis for them out there, but also that there's a misperception to correct (caused by media and establishment convention). 

There are two further fascinating results, when you dig into the research. One, is that women score significantly higher than men, in terms of identifying themselves with compassionate values: 

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And secondly, although most public institutions are seen as less compassionate than ourselves, arts and cultural institutions are regarded as the most compassionate out of them all - including education, media and business:

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In terms of our work with groups and communities - and particularly in the run-up to our recent opening "Friendly" in Plymouth (see report here) - we can corroborate some of this. The social and civic groups that were willing to work and support the evening - see a list here - were largely driven and led by women. (See Indra Adnan's exploration of this in her column on the Social Making event in Plymouth). 

The Common Cause research also gives us very good back-up on our decision to deeply integrate and engage with local artists and cultural organisations - putting them not just at the heart of any of our events, but into all the stages of our process. The compassion and understanding (whether funny or moving) that can emanate from a skilful and committed artistic performance, or process, is crucial to evolving a new language around power and action. (The phrase that came from Anairda's performance at the Devonport Guildhall - "We will fly together!" - is an example of how that can happen). 

We hope to be conversing a lot more with Common Cause over the coming months. In the meantime, please explore their work here.