Elevation Mapping: Pro-Social Compassion Maps

  • February 27, 2014

By Daniel E. Martin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Dept. of Management
Cal State East Bay

A few years back, I was having a conversation with a brilliant Stanford student about crime maps. He suggested that a really cool use of mapping technology would be to map compassion. I thought to myself, that is a crazy idea, how would we do that? I shrugged it off and tried not to think about this issue, but it became something of a puzzle that I want to solve. How could this be done? Who would map compassion? Compassion is complex and can manifest itself in myriad ways, and most folks are not familiar with the technical definition of compassion as 1) noticing suffering, 2) feeling empathy and 3) taking action to ameliorate the suffering which would cue folks to see it in actual behavior.

Recent social psychological studies in university settings suggests that witnessing both compassionate and pro-social behavior inspires others to behave in a similar manner, with significant psychological benefits for those witnessing the positive event. How do we feel when we witness others working together? Kindness? Compassion? Sharing? Giving? Haidt (2003b) calls the emotion 'elevation' (based on a 1771 description by Jefferson). Elevation is an emotional response to witnessing others acts which make us feel unselfish, often with a desire to act similarly. Haidt describes participants witnessing good deeds giving them a pleasurable feeling, sometimes feeling warm or pleasant in the chest that triggered desires of doing good deeds. 

With a background in institutional research, I started thinking about the kinds of variables collected in organizational assessment, quality of life for cities, social capital and student climate surveys as offering variables that were scaled behavior that are pro-social behavior. As an of management professor at CSUEB, I decided to run an experiment in adjusting students frames to focus on those positive elements around them. Using the theoretical underpinning of elevation, I pulled behaviors that would be observable between others that came from student climate surveys. This was critical as a hostile, unhealthy campus climate negatively impacts adjustment to college, students being less likely to adjust academically and are less likely to develop a sense of belonging on the campus. Healthy climate is associated with positive educational outcomes, productivity and success both for minority and majority students and impacts the recruitment and retention of diverse faculty and staff. 

What were some of the variables? I chose behaviors that were tangible: tutoring help, mentoring, sharing resources, ethnic group collaboration, interpersonal validation and sense of belonging. Enabling the visualization of the above reflects new ways for individuals to conceptualize and understand compassionate and pro-social behavior across a wide range of potential outcomes. We randomly assigned to either the elevation-mapping task or a control task. Then we installed Ushahidi , an open source tool to map behavior, and the above variables were participants in the manipulation condition used to create "pins" that could be used to indicate graphically where compassionate pro-social behavior had occurred through a web-based form, e-mail, Android or iPhone/IPad application.

Participants were asked to report how they felt immediately after completing the incident report form, using a scale from one (didn't feel at all) to five (felt very strongly) for eight elevation items (based on the Elevation scale developed in Schnall and Roper, 2009) to assess elevation. We also asked participants to rate how happy they felt and their likelihood of participation in future volunteer work as well. Before the either group of participants actually participated, we collected data on compassion for others, psychological flourishing, stress, anxiety and depression.

After five days of observing pro-social/compassionate behavior, noting one behavior a day, the group that participated had:

- Statistically significantly higher levels of:
• Flourishing (Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F., 2005)
• Compassion for others (Hwang, J. Y., Plante, T., & Lackey, K., 2008)

- Statistically significantly lower levels of:
• Depression (S. H. Lovibond & P. F. Lovibond, 1995)
• Anxiety (S. H. Lovibond & P. F. Lovibond, 1995)
• Stress (S. H. Lovibond & P. F. Lovibond, 1995)

- Importantly, higher levels of elevation were significantly related to: 
• Mindfulness (Observing, Describing, Awareness)
• Initial Levels of Flourishing
• Lower levels of Depression
• Lower Fears of Compassion (for Others & for Self-Gilbert, et. al.)

In focus groups, students reported higher levels of wellbeing, satisfaction and happiness. For a brief video of the concept, please see a summary of the research (as well as other related projects) here. We will be working with CCARE and the Charter for Compassion to scale the maps to cities as quality of life surveys provide us with the same longitudinal data student climate surveys offer for the Charter of Compassion Compassion Games in 2014. Similar cities can be compared and competitions can be engaged in using the outcomes above.

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