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Many aspects of modern life get in the way of our ability to practise compassion: The decline in community connectedness, technology that has altered face-to-face interactions and rising social inequality. How can that be changed? Erin Anderssen explores the role compassion, and the lack of it, plays in our society

Chris Sampson, seen at Churchill Station in Edmonton, risked his life to save a stranger who had fallen on the LRT tracks. After the rescue, he simply went to school, though he was eventually awarded a medal for bravery.

The morning Chris Sampson performed his extraordinary act of compassion began in ordinary fashion, as such mornings usually do. It was an April weekday, rush hour in Edmonton's Churchill LRT station, a drowsy crowd gathered on the platform. Mr. Sampson, a 27-year-old college student in the second year of an electrical apprenticeship, was standing by the elevators and listening to a podcast on earbuds when, farther down the platform, two men began fighting.

He edged closer to see what was happening. Then, as one of the men turned away, the second sucker-punched him in the head. The victim lost consciousness and fell onto the tracks as the warning bell clanged that the train was coming.

Mr. Sampson acted. He ran forward and leaped onto the tracks. When the man proved too heavy for him to lift, someone else hopped down to help him. The train was a few metres away, braking to a premature stop, when Mr. Sampson pulled himself back onto the platform. Then he went off to class.

His proud mother outed him later to the media, which is how his actions led to a medal for bravery last month.

A humble hero – just what the world needs right about now.

As Mr. Sampson explained in an interview this month, he always hoped he would be that guy, the one who stepped in when it mattered. "I didn't want to be a person who stood doing nothing," he said. "I didn't want to be a bystander. I guess I know now."

People typically believe, as social psychologists have repeatedly shown, that they are morally superior – more honest or generous – than their neighbours. But test those assumptions in experiments and our morals shift when it suits our interests or harden around faulty reasoning. Our actions depend on how others behave. The promise of a good deed tomorrow allows us, even if unconsciously, to behave badly today. We're easily manipulated by our environments. We might as well admit it: Our noble avatars tend to be controlled by pompous, cowardly, power-hungry jerks.

That's one way to understand a year that's been so decidedly shaped by prime examples of jerks and much less so, it seems, by people such as Mr. Sampson, who refused to be a watcher in the crowd. Sexual harassers in Hollywood and beyond. Self-serving bombast and shadiness from political leaders. Powerful people taking advantage of power. And the groping, bullying, name-calling and overt racism – the villainy of 2017 brought us all low.

In the midst of such a mess, what makes someone such as Chris Sampson risk his life for a stranger? And how can we get more of it?

One of the anecdotes that former UN prosecutor Payam Akhavan shares in his new book, In Search of a Better World, begins with a knock on a Winnipeg door on the day prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for the Canadian government's role in the Indian residential-school system. Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Donovan Fontaine answers the door to find his elderly immigrant neighbours, offering muffins and their own apology for his people's suffering. "This small gesture had a profound effect on him," Dr. Akhavan recounts, speaking on the phone this week from Zambia.

"The big events in the world that seem beyond our grasp are ultimately a reflection of the choices we make as individuals," he says. "Culture and politics are built from the bottom up, and so our daily transactions, the conversations we have around the dinner table, our relations in our places of work – these all generate meaning and direction for society."

Yet, too often, he says, we either fail to act or we do so out of a sense of guilt for our own advantage or to feel virtuous. But compassion is not "about doing a favour for anybody but ourselves." In a world of unprecedented prosperity, where rates of anxiety and depression are high, Dr. Akhavan argues that we neglect compassion at our own expense. "Self-worth," he likes to say, "comes from doing something worthy for yourself."

Dr. Akhavan, a human-rights lawyer and scholar at Montreal's McGill University, tells the story of one of his law students who volunteered at a soup kitchen for Indigenous people. "We sit in a classroom and talk about Indigenous rights, but then we forget that the suffering is right down the road," he says.

But just as often, we fail to see what is happening right in front of us – we debate and dither until the moment passes. Mr. Sampson didn't weigh the personal risk or consider whether the man merited sacrifice. He simply reacted – what Yale psychologist David Rand, who has studied bravery medal winners, calls an intuitive form of "high-risk altruism."

For the rest of us, however, compassion may not come so naturally. In fact, the more time people take to think about it, says Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, the less likely they are to practise it. Prof. Piff became interested in the subject of compassion while growing up in Israel during the Gulf War, under the constant threat of Scud missiles. He says he wanted to "understand what can drive people so far apart" and what might bring them together.

"Even though it might not seem like this nowadays, I think of our capacity for compassion as a defining feature of what it means to be human."

And yet, as he has learned, so many aspects of modern life get in the way of our ability to practise compassion: The decline in community connectedness, technology that has altered face-to-face interactions and rising social inequality.

"We could say we are experiencing a compassion deficit in society today," he says.

One of the problems, his work suggests, is that the people with the most resources, the ones who can afford to be generous, are also often the least likely to feel compassion. A new study out this week suggests that Scrooge wasn't fiction – our compassion appears to be influenced by our social standing. The study, published in the journal Emotion, asked 1,519 Americans to complete an emotions scale (sample: nurturing others gives me a warm feeling inside) and compared it with their household incomes. The wealthier participants scored higher on "self-oriented feelings" such as pride and contentment, while the poorer participants reported more "other-centred" feelings of compassion and love.

"The more power you have, the more money and resources you have relative to others, the less likely you are to feel compassion for another person," Prof. Piff says.

If anything, moral reasoning tends to interfere with compassionate instincts. For starters, our moral views are both fallible and flexible, often bending to suit our self-interest. Social scientists have been able to shift even firmly held opinions of study participants within minutes based on which view would personally benefit them most.

In one revealing experiment, a pair of participants are given the task of transcribing paragraphs. One, "the typist," has to finish three paragraphs. The second, "the checker," only has to do one. At the end of the assignment, the typist is told to divvy up the pay – either 50/50 or 75/25, based on the amount of work done. In a 2014 paper, the team of U.S. researchers found that even if people said they believed otherwise before the experiment, they tended to adjust their opinion for personal benefit – even though only minutes had passed.

"This should make people a little more skeptical about how fair something really is," says Peter DeScioli, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University in New York and the lead author of the study. "The mere fact that you feel it is fair, are you just summarizing your own interest?"

Prof. DeScioli concludes: "Moral judgment is more like a stick we use as a fail-safe to keep bad guys down. If we want to be better people, we should try to cultivate compassion."

At the University of Calgary, nursing professor Shane Sinclair studies the importance of compassion in treating palliative patients.

"Compassion is like empathy on steroids," he says. Where empathy may bias us toward those we consider "deserving" – for instance, Prof. Sinclair says, sympathizing more with a breast-cancer patient than a smoker with lung cancer – compassion is more equitable. "It not only tries to treat people more equally, but particularly targets those we may not easily relate to or find more difficult to love: the vulnerable, the stranger, the homeless, our enemies."

There is evidence that we can indeed grow compassion, Prof. Piff says. In other experiments, participants were shown either a control video or a short "compassion-inducing" video on child poverty, then asked to help "an actor" who interrupted the experiment. In the control group, less wealthy participants were more likely to offer help, even at their own inconvenience. But when primed by the poverty video, the differences evened out.

What we forget, Prof. Piff says, is that compassion pays back in kind – improving health and well-being. When people are given $20 to spend, those who spend it on someone else rather than themselves record higher levels of happiness. As with Dr. Akhavan, Prof. Piff proposes positive daily actions – talking to someone in line at the grocery store or on the bus, what he calls "little shifts that take us away from our psychological comfort zones" and expose us to the perspective of a stranger.

"How do people navigate the essential struggle of everyday life? The fundamental conflict of everyday social life is when to put your own needs above the interests of someone else – and when not to," Prof. Piff says. "We are always trying to figure out that balance."

But if compassion is a finite resource, as Prof. Piff contends, then finding the balance is a shared responsibility. "What I tell my classes is that it's not a question of all or nothing. It is about whether each of you can do a little more on a daily basis."

This is a resolution that Sam Tsemberis desires for the coming year – less of a focus on winning and achievement and more on acts of compassion. "Eye contact, a gentle nod of the head, a smile or a 'good morning' offered freely to another person is a tiny way we can increase connection," he says. "Perhaps these acts of micro-kindness matter more when the person to whom they are offered is homeless."

Mr. Tsemberis, a Canadian who now lives in New York, is credited with advancing the Housing First model for homelessness, one that provides a home unconditionally and then offers services to support the resident – a philosophy built on the very notion of non-judgmental compassion.

As an example of this quality that still resonates with him even years later, he cites the heartbreaking story of the Amish community in Pennsylvania where a gunman killed eight girls in a schoolhouse in 2006. As the donations flowed in, the community insisted that a portion be given to help the wife and children of the shooter.

"What was it about this community that they had the capacity, even in their moment of suffering, to give in this way?" he asks. As a society, "we could do better on finding ways to celebrate extraordinary acts of compassion."

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, one such extraordinary actor prepares for the holidays with his wife and six-year-old daughter. Mr. Sampson's wish for his family: To live in a world where people in need can count on being rescued by a brave stranger.

He did his part. Now it's up to the rest of us.