Callousness, compassion and the Ukrainian crisis

Professor Paul Gilbert OBE, a British Psychological Society Fellow at the Centre for Compassion Research and Training, University of Derby, with a warning to us all…

Compassion and callousness are key processes in conflict. Exploring their evolutionary roots reveals some of the serious challenges we face as a species in preventing these horrendous situations in the future, and moving to a fairer and more compassionate world. 

Compassion and callousness are two major conflicting motives that can play out within us and between us (Gilbert, 2021; Gilbert & Simos 2022). Compassion as a process arises from having a sensitivity to, and engaging with, suffering: accompanied by a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it (Gilbert, 2020)Because compassion is focused on the alleviation and prevention of suffering – rather than making people happy – the key attributes of compassion are courage and wisdom to engage with what can be distressing, painful or dangerous activities. 

Compassion can vary with context. For example, the courage and wisdom of a firefighter risking their lives to save somebody are quite different to that of an empathic counsellor or even a parent. What unites them is a motivation to address suffering. People may show considerable compassion in some contexts and with some people but not in others. In many contexts courage without wisdom can be reckless (jumping in) and wisdom without courage can be ineffective (holding back). Compassion is different to tenderness, kindness or love and should not be confused with compassion (Gilbert et al., 2019). They are ways of being compassionate but are not compassion itself; you do not need to love people to try to address suffering. 

Callousness can also be defined as a process and a trait. As a trait it is linked to a lack of caring, remorselessness and reduced responsiveness to social positive affiliative signals (social warmth) (Waller & Wagner, 2017). As a process (dimension) it can be seen as the opposite of compassion, that is as an insensitivity to suffering, including when we are the cause of suffering from the pursuit of self-interest. There are many areas of life that are textured by callousness – all forms of exploitation of people, treatment of animals, crimes of various forms, racism, pursuing economic activities that are known to damage the environment, polices that disadvantage the poor, gang and tribal wars and the appalling events in Ukraine and other national wars. Callousness turns into cruelty when causing suffering is deliberate, as in bullying though to torture (Gilbert, 2019; Zimbardo, 2011) or entertainment (Fernández-Rodríguez & Romero-Rodríguez, 2021) and in the gladiatorial games. Indeed, humans are well known to enjoy seeing others suffer if they are perceived to have violated social rules, are a threat or seen as ‘an enemy’. 

There seem at least two sources to callousness. First are those who have the competencies to be compassionate but for one reason or another either dissociate or choose not to be. For example, fMRI studies show that we respond differently to signals of distress from people we like or identify with compared to those we don't. There are many resistances to compassion (Gilbert & Mascaro, 2017). Resistance to compassion for others is correlated with ruthlessness, narcissism and competitiveness (Basran et al., 2019). The second source is those who don't have compassion motivation or the competencies, empathic or otherwise (Waller & Wagner, 2017). Even to their closest kin and allies they can be cold. Some individuals can be empathic but use it for manipulative purposes and have little if any compassion motivation (Heym et al., 2020). Leaders with callous traits can find ways to stimulate callousness within populations and advance the motivation for harm doing, as in war. The war in Ukraine, as is the case with so many other wars, appears to be underpinned by the facilitation of callousness. 

Looked at this way, compassion is the main psychological process that inhibits callousness and if for some reasons those elements of our minds are inhibited, humans can become demons (Gilbert, 2019).

Evolved challenges

Lifting the lid on dispositions for compassion verses callousness reveals they are rooted in two very different evolved resource seeking strategies, which have been playing out over many millions of years. Failure to understand the role of the contextual regulation of evolutionary strategies within populations, in favour of the individually focused psychiatric diagnosis, will cost us dearly. 

Over the last three billion years, DNA has created trillions of short-lived, disease prone life forms, many of which are in conflict with each other. Over 99 per cent are now extinct. As a process of building lifeforms, that seek their own survival and replication, evolution is utterly indifferent to the intense suffering of the life forms it creates – and in that sense it is a callous process. In the ‘blind’ struggle of survival and reproduction, most of the life forms it creates are also completely callous (when defined as indifference to the suffering caused to others). We may consider that viruses have no concern for their hosts, predators have no concern for their prey, and competitors have no concern for those they defeat or injuries they cause. To care for others and be able to address their suffering, and certainly not cause it, is therefore a phenomenal evolutionary event. It is potentially fragile and limited (Loewenstein & Small, 2006; Workman et al., 2020). Although we can link callousness to psychopathology (da Silva, et al., 2015) it is also a general process that has been and remains responsible for causing immense suffering. There are various evolutionary roots that illuminate callous behaviour.

One of the great challenges of life is to compete for access to, control over and the holding of resources, such as for territory, food and sexual partners. When pursuing resources, in conflict competitive situations, most mammals are primarily callous, narcissistic, self-focused and use threat and intimidation to get what they want. For primates, Bonobos are an exception – they are matriarchal and use sex and affiliation to regulate conflict. 

The realities of aggressive conflict do not negate the importance of also understanding the salience and evolution of cooperation (Sussman et al., 2005; Tomasello, & Vaish, 2013; Workman et al., 2020), empathic behaviour, consoling and help giving which are also evident in various species (De Waal & Preston, 2017). Nonetheless, many species have evolved specific characteristics purely for ‘callous aggressive conflict’. Consider the horns and scull thickness of the male long-horned mountain goat that enable them to crash into each other during mating times. For most species males are evolved to be larger, more powerful and more physically aggressive than females, again in order to facilitate aggressive conflict. 

For both genders, a common form of resource competition behaviour is to frighten competitors, turn them into subordinates and inhibit their resource acquisition and control. Humans go one stage further and can turn others not only into subordinates but also slaves. These resource seeking and regulating behaviours can be called control and hold strategies (Gilbert, 2021). Although they risk stimulating counter measures against them (which will need to be supressed) they benefit from callousness, being relatively indifferent and not inhibited by the suffering they cause others. In this context compassion sensitivity is very unlikely to evolve. Indeed, compassion could be a positive disadvantage. Unfortunately, the world is full of individuals who are in the grip of these old strategies and callous in their pursuit of resources and power.

Studies have shown that ‘control and hold’ conflict competition regulates a number of physiological processes such as testosterone, cortisol, dopamine and serotonin (Sapolsky, 2017). In primates, dominant males are influenced by subordinate signalling. Putting a dominant behind a one way screen so that subordinates can see the dominant and his threat displays, but the dominant can't see subordinate response displays, his serotonin drops. To put this another way, threatening subordinates and experiencing their submissive signalling can maintain serotonin levels in dominant males. Humans are regulated by many other signals of course, including affiliative ones, but those who can't use the affiliative processes to feel safe (Waller & Wagner, 2017) (possibly because of early life trauma) may only feel safe if they can generate and see fear and subordinate submissive signals in others (Gilbert & McGuire, 1998; Gilbert, 2022; Sapolsky, 2017). This is clearly a ‘bullying’ relating style that can manifest in families, workplaces and criminal gangs, and in the pursuit of power can lead to terrifying, threat-maintained tyrannies. There is no shortage in history of these tyrannies (Black, 2016). 

Another process to keep in mind is that many species have evolved submissive and subordinate signalling behaviour designed to turn off the aggression of the more dominant. When subordinates are threatened by dominant individuals they cannot escape from, they can be highly motivated to engage in appeasing and submissive behaviours as forms of safety behaviours that can become self-reinforcing (Sloman & Gilbert, 2000). Indeed, bullies depend upon this process. The reasons for obedience to authority, ignited by Stanley Milgram’s studies (1974), the callousness demonstrated in Zimbardo’s Stanford studies (Zimbardo, 2007) and concepts such as Crimes of Obedience (Kelman & Hamilton, 1989) have been disputed (Haslam & Reicher, 2017) although the reality of such behaviours has not. Some subordinates are compliant to dominant males because that offers some protection but also a share of the spoils, status, power and privilege. Appeasing and ingratiating to those above them, but hostile to those below them, Vonk (1998) called this the ‘slime effect’ of ‘downward kicking and upward licking’. Indeed there are many reasons why we follow and support and even idolise callous, toxic and dangerous leaders (Lipman-Blumen, 2006). Our recent history is littered with them: Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein and, for many, Putin. As leaders gain power they can also become vulnerable to callous forms of hubris (Owen, 2020). 

Hence different processes of callousness are involved in different contexts, but it is clear that humans can be enticed to commit terrible atrocities on a vast scale… and in war times often do. From the Romans to the horrors of Genghis Khan, the Vikings, the Holocaust and modern warfare, it is tragically the same behaviours that we see unfolding in Ukraine. 

Care and share 

Yet humans also have very different types of resource regulation strategies which we can call care and share (Gilbert, 2021). There are some species that engage in complex reciprocal sharing, such as bats, and sharing and caring occur in nonhuman species, especially chimpanzees (De Waal & Preston 2017; Tomasello & Vaish, 2013). The reasons humans evolved motives to care and share beyond that of other primates reveals some of the serious challenges we face as a species today (Workman et al., 2020). 

The story goes something like this. In the transition from typical hierarchical primate into homo sapiens, we went through a stage when subordinates reduced submissive signalling, began to form alliances and gang up against individuals who used aggression to dominate and control resources. This is well documented in Boehm’s 1999 book Hierarchy in the Forest. Second, these alliances started to bestow status and share resources for wisdom and helpfulness. This turned competition into competing to be chosen, seen as attractive and reputation seeking, and where displays of self-interest and aggression were shunned (Barkow, 1989). These changes also made us sensitive to reputation loss as in social stigma (Sznycer et al., 2016) and shame which can be major sources of mental health difficulties and anti-social behaviour (Gilbert, 2007, 2022; Gilbert & McGuire, 1998). 

These alliances began to prosper through the process of caring and sharing and gradually evolved into hunter-gatherer groups. The evolution of motives to share material resources (favours) and form cooperative reciprocating alliances is well documented (Tomasello & Vaish, 2013; Workman et al., 2020). Such data supports the view that our intelligence has been driven by the challenges of socially complex relating, called the social brain hypothesis (Dunbar, 2014). The evolution of language enabled us to exchange information about our own states of mind, our emotions, thoughts, needs, interests and knowledge. That assumes minds wanting to communicate such information and minds wanting to pay attention and learn from such information. Being able to make sense of such communications supports the ontogenetic development of mentalizing (Luyten, et al., 2020).

In addition to cooperation, the archaeological record shows that we evolved extended caring as in looking after the sick and injured which also drove ‘empathic concern’ in hunter-gatherer groups (Spikins, 2015). Associated with these changes were changes in childcare that became community focused further supporting the evolution of caring and sharing motives, and mentalising competencies (Narvaez, 2017). The social status structure was relatively horizontal, egalitarian and for the most part no one individual was significantly better or worse off than others (Narvaez, 2017). Egalitarianism, however, had to be maintained partly through the suppression of anti-egalitarian manoeuvres (Boehm, 1999) but also through the psychological and physiological positive impacts of regular playful caring and sharing interactions (Gray, 2011; Ryan, 2019). Hence, today many of our physiological systems, including our epigenetics profile, the functioning of our immune, cardiovascular and autonomic nervous system, and maturation of various neurocircuits, are positively influenced by the degree of affiliation, caring and sharing we receive from others from birth onwards (see Slavich, 2020, for a review). 

The problem is if we don't grow up in these caring and compassionate communities, but in more threatening environments, the motivational systems we require to become caring and sharing may not develop. We are left with the threat sensitive control and hold strategies.

Why agriculture messed with our brains

Many of our psychological challenges for compassion versus callousness arose from the invention of agriculture. Anthropologists have highlighted the fact that agriculture completely changed the social and economic contexts of the hunter-gatherer way of life and resource access (Ryan, 2019). Agriculture enabled groups of increasing size to store food and thus accumulate resources (wealth) which could be competed for. Agriculture took us back to the advantage (for some) of enacting (intimidation) control and hold resource seeking strategies. Social groups became vertical and increasingly unequal not horizontal and egalitarian – but now with a new ‘intelligent’ brain. Inequalities in gender power emerged again. The enticements of high resources also enticed the emergence of dominant elites into tribal violence and the ‘desire to conquer’ motive. 

Over many years Sidanius, Pratto and colleagues (2017) have studied an orientation to resource distribution, which is the tendency to favour hierarchical and unequal rather than egalitarian forms of social organisation within groups and between groups. They called this social dominance orientation (SDO). Ho et al., (2012) note that:

The dominance dimension is characterized by support for overt oppression and aggressive intergroup behaviours designed to maintain the subordination of one or more groups, whereas the anti-egalitarianism dimension entails a preference for intergroup inequalities that are maintained by an interrelated network of subtle hierarchy-enhancing ideologies and social policies (p.1004).

They point out that SDO leaders in both politics and religion are very common, tend to be socially divisive, and seek to privilege their own group. As leaders they gain support through two common tactics: one is to elevate the sense of threat from other groups and second is to promote a sense that one’s own group (be it based on ethnicity, religion, class, gender, etc.) is special and entitled to unequal access to power, control and resources and thus to exploit other groups for one’s own benefit. 

A third factor was noted above – the use of intimidation to induce submissive compliant behaviour. SDO is associated with the belief that it is okay to drop nuclear bombs on people and blame them for doing so (Slovic et al., 2020). Another source of SDO conflict is a sense of shame-humiliation and desire for vengeance that played a key role in the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Needless to say, callousness rather than compassion for outgroups will be marked.

SDO has haunted us for well over 5,000 years, as witnessed from the great suffering that has flowed from the re-emergence of individualised kin and group-based control and hold strategies (Gilbert, 2021). Indeed, whatever empire we want to look at, be it the Aztecs, Hittites, Alexander the Great, Egyptians, Vikings, Romans, Mongals and various religious movements, these empires generated considerable tribal wars. Their elites operated terrorist societies that used imprisonment, resource stripping, torture and executions, often of the most hideous kind, to threaten and subdue populations (Black, 2016; Gilbert, 2019). These tactics are still common in some regimes today. Most empires had extensive classes of slaves for which there was no compassion at all. When societies are unable to suppress or get rid of social structures that enable those who are strongly orientated to control and hold strategies getting into positions of power, and then engaging in typical subordinate and opposition oppression and intimidation tactics, leaders such as Putin emerge.

We can also note that as wealth increases people become less compassionate and more focused on enacting resource control and hold strategies (Van Kleef et al., 2018) – partly because the more we have the more we become concerned with losing not just gaining resources. The consequences are considerable inequalities, with some sections of the population still burdened by food and fuel poverty (Elliott, 2022; Moore, 2002). Competitive neoliberal environments create considerable anxieties for people’s ability to feel (good enough) part of the culture and are mentally undermining (Becker et al., 2021). When the elites can use their power and influence in political spheres, we see some of the distorting impacts on wealthy democracies that still allow extensive poverty even within their own borders. 

Looked at this way Ukraine is not just the battleground between two economic philosophies or two very different styles of leadership, it is also an extreme and horrifying version of a battleground between two ancient resource distribution strategies that are playing out in the actors concerned. The conflict between compassion and callousness textures many serious problems in the world today, not just those that are vicious as in the Ukraine. Psychological science can peer into the undercurrents of these processes and consider how to use our science to influence the political, the media and social contextual arenas that support care, share and compassion rather than control hold and callousness, or at least have a more adaptive balance.

What to do?

Compassion can offer the courage and wisdom to gain insight into the way we are gene built but also socially shaped, making us capable of extraordinary compassion but also extraordinary callousness and viciousness. Today there are those calling for long term security on the back of rearmament, the ‘threat-defence and counter-threat defence’ strategies which will advance the armaments industry of course (Ricks, 2022). Regardless of the wisdom of such we could also spend our billions trying to work out how to create a sense of trust and safety with each other and support tolerance and ideally friendship; ideas captured in the concept of scientific diplomacy (Galluccio, 2021). We had largely succeeded in doing this in Europe after a few thousand years of constant warring with each other. It is possible if we have the determination.

In addition, what the war in Ukraine has revealed is the serious problems when governments can control the media and information flow. We should work with the United Nations to create information technologies that cannot be over written by governments, nor filled with fake news and distortions, and where there are at least some information streams that are in some way policed by independently agreed international monitoring systems. We are far from this at the moment, but maybe this would be a preferable ambition than pouring vast sums into weapons research and production. Information availability needs to be the new battlegrounds of the mind, rather than threatening each other with raining down terrors. If the Russian people had access to the kinds of reporting we have in the West how would that change things? It is well recognised that most peoples of the world would prefer to live in freedom, peace and social justice, for their children to flourish and for them to enjoy their friends at the weekend, free of poverty and have access to healthcare. Most people prefer to live the good life not the violent one, to live in peace not in war. But as research has repeatedly shown (and even Hermann Goering acknowledged at the Nuremberg trials), it relatively easy to stimulate the dark side, to create threats and enemies and excite people to lay down their lives and take those of others for the cause (Zimbardo, 2006). If we do not find ways to undermine these processes and those that give rise to the elites and leaders and their ‘narratives’ that feed our callous dark side, we will forever struggle.  

Sooner or later the Russian people will discover what has been going on, especially as soldiers return. Will there come a time, possibly like South Africa or Germany in 1945, for efforts at truth and reconciliation? These were in different contexts. If Putin loses we must be careful not to humiliate or shame the Russian people, otherwise we'll be back in the conditions for the rise of Nazism that we saw in the 1930s. What emerges post Putin is very uncertain. How the people of Russia might cope with the intense guilt they might be faced with is a serious psychological question. How they might respond to a rearming NATO is again uncertain. This also raises the urgent question of how might we use compassionate science to address hatred (Ackerman, 2022). There is much for psychologists around the world to put their minds to.

If we want our world to be a more compassionate one in 100 years from now, compassion might be a good scientific area of study. One thing is clear – compassion involves efforts to address the causes of suffering, and that requires careful regulation of human behaviour. Without regulation and careful, refereeing sport would degenerate into competition of those that could cheat the best. It is our failure to regulate resource competition that has enabled the world to generate huge inequalities and intoxications of power (Owen, 2020). If we seek a more egalitarian world then we can note Boehm’s (1999) warnings:

I made the case that humans can remain egalitarian only if they consciously suppress innate tendencies that otherwise would make for a pronounced social dominance hierarchy. In effect, it is necessary for a large power-coalition (the rank and file of a band) to dominate the group’s would-be ‘bullies’ if egalitarianism is to prevail – otherwise, the group will become hierarchical with marked status differences and strong leadership. 

On this basis, it can be argued that humans are innately disposed to despotism in Vehrencamp’s ethological sense of the word. My point is that humans are not just naturally egalitarian: if we wish to keep social hierarchy at a low level, we must act as intentional groups that vigilantly curtail alpha-type behaviours. This curtailment is accomplished through the cultural agency of social sanctioning …., so political egalitarianism is the product of morality (p.84).


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