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Power of Compassion



The call for compassion lies at the heart of every major world religion. Yet, at the same time, religious practices can lead to intergroup bias that creates the opposite effect.

Social psychologist Jordan LaBouff has ob­served this paradox firsthand.

“I first became interested in compassion, empathy and religion by watching my grandmother,” he says. “For the last decade or so, she has been increasingly involved with the people at a nearby drug rehab facility — bringing them to church and offering them their own Sunday school class, visiting them and so on. My grandmother’s empathy — her ability to genuinely feel what another person might be feeling — helped me understand that religion can help to build some incredible intergroup bridges.

“At nearly the same time, my pastor father was being chastised in a growing suburban church for allowing African-Americans to come to a church youth group event.”

Religion’s ability to bring people together and divide them has served as a motivation for LaBouff’s wide-ranging research. In one line of inquiry, he has observed how humility is linked to being helpful to others. In another line, he’s seen that the proximity of a church or the experience of an imagined conversation can activate a person’s conservative opinions or change their attitudes. In yet another line, his work examines how attitudes toward minority groups influence support for social programs and policies.

At first glance, LaBouff’s research would seem to go in three very different directions. But in all, the common thread is compassion.

“Empathy and compassion are the building blocks of human community. When understanding and caring for others is central to a society, we see the greatest social growth and well-being. In societies where these critical qualities are ignored, we sometimes see the worst acts of human history,” says LaBouff, who joined the University of Maine faculty last year as an Honors Preceptor in Psychology — one of four preceptors named in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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