The Roots of Compassion: An Evolutionary and Neurobiological Perspective

C. Sue Carter, Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Eric C. Porges

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Compassion for others and social support have survival value and health benefits. Although compassion is sometimes considered uniquely human, critical components of compassion have been described in nonhuman mammals. Studies originally conducted in social mammals and now in humans have implicated neuropeptide hormones, especially oxytocin, in social cognition, a sense of safety, and the capacity of sociality to permit compassionate responses. In contrast, the related peptide vasopressin and its receptor may be necessary for forming selective relationships and for the apparently paradoxical effects of oxytocin, which can include increases in fear and avoidance. Oxytocin and vasopressin may contribute to sex differences in compassion. Furthermore, among the processes through which oxytocin and vasopressin influence behavior and health are complex effects on the autonomic nervous system. Knowledge of the mechanisms underlying the benefits of compassion offers new insights into the healing power of positive social behaviors and social support.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780190464684
StatePublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameOxford library of psychology


  • Social Psychology
  • Psychology
  • Compassion
  • Helping Behavior
  • Oxytocin
  • Vasopressin
  • Autonomic Nervous System
  • Sex Differences
  • Evolution
  • Neurobiology


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